The Lakers won in dramatic fashion against the Nuggets in Game 2, earning a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals by the skin of their teeth thanks to an Anthony Davis game-winner. Here are three takeaways from the improbable win.
Anthony Davis is a problem
To paraphrase our fearless leader, people won’t soon forget that Anthony Davis is a BUCKET. Davis had 37 points in the Game 1 rout, but his 31 points in this instant classic are sure to be remembered much more fondly. He had 22 points in the second half out of 45 total for the Lakers, hitting eight of the team’s 16 field goals during that stretch. Davis took a few too many long twos against Nikola Jokic, but he was better when he got closer to elbow, and flat out unstoppable with two feet in the paint.
When the Lakers needed scores late in the game, they turned to Davis. He hit a late-clock 3-pointer (from the same spot as the eventual game-winner) to put the team up 100-92 with 3:03 to play, then an outstanding floater to regain the lead at 102-101, and finally, the dagger.
It may have seemed like Davis was passive in the first half while the Lakers offense ran through LeBron James, but he was merely waiting his turn until picking up the mantle in the second. No one on the Nuggets could guard him. Paul Millsap was too small, Jokic too slow, and everyone else not even worthy of consideration. The Lakers needed Davis to carry them on the offensive end, and he did.
This was not the way to defend Nikola Jokic
The Lakers made some odd schematic choices in the Jokic/Jamal Murray two-man action by continuously switching, thus forcing one of their smalls to cover Jokic and a big to guard Murray. On most teams, this would be a death knell for the big as well to cover Murray, but Davis simply engulfed his fellow Wildcat on several possessions. He forced Murray into a number of jump passes and bad step-backs, rarely getting blown by despite Murray’s speed.
However, the other side of that matchup proved problematic, as Jokic easily scored over any guard on a switch, even though it was Alex Caruso more often than not. Caruso is an excellent defender, but not in the post against a 7’0 behemoth. When the Lakers tried to double, they left easy passes for Jokic to hit shooters or cutters. A particularly egregious example of this came at the end of the third quarter, when Davis left Murray on the strong side to help Caruso on Jokic, and Kyle Kuzma was unable to get to Murray fast enough to contest the 3-pointer.
Jokic is outstanding, and he will score regardless of what the Lakers do on him, as was evidenced by him backing down Davis on Denver’s final offensive possession. But the Lakers were making it too easy for him. Dwight Howard wasn’t as effective as he was on Sunday, but considering JaVale McGee’s continued struggles, starting Howard should continue to be a conversation. More than that, though, the Lakers have to be disciplined to keep a big on Jokic and make him work. If Jokic gets into a rhythm early, he can easily drain tough looks later when the defense tightens up.
The half-court offense was a trainwreck, especially in the second half
The Lakers have lived at the rim throughout the 2019-20 season. The way they compensate for being a poor jump-shooting team is by taking a high percentage of their shots as close to the basket as possible. During the regular season, they took 39.8% of their shots at the rim when the league average was 35.2%, per Cleaning the Glass. It has been harder to get shots at the hoop during the postseason — the league average has decreased to 30.9% — but the Lakers still take 38.6% of their shots there.
In Game 2, only 26% of the team’s shots came at the rim. In the second half, they only had five shots at the basket, and nine total shots in the paint compared to 11 in the midrange and 16 above-the-break threes. The Lakers convert at a high percentage near the basket (13-of-19 for the game), but they settled too often for jump shots, looks that the Nuggets are happy to concede.
The blame can be spread around. James didn’t drive as frequently as usual, seemingly content to beat Denver from the perimeter after getting off to a hot shooting start. Rajon Rondo was sloppy for the majority of his minutes. His passes (save for the assist to Davis on the final inbounds) didn’t create any advantages, forcing the Lakers to heave jumpers late in the shot clock. The Lakers also had little off-ball movement, so they didn’t have as many cuts to the basket resulting in lay-ups.
The Lakers tried to get action towards the basket on their final few possessions. James drove into the paint up 100-96, but fell on a wet spot, leading to a turnover. Davis got into the lane for his floater with 26 seconds to play, and even Caruso’s missed three on the final possession came as a result of a drive and kick.
It was almost too little, too late, however, until Davis’ heroics saved the Lakers. It was a fun to way to win, there’s no denying that. But the Lakers would be well served to clean up their mistakes so that Game 3 doesn’t come down to the last shot.