The Lakers built an early lead and held the Nuggets at bay for the remainder of Game 4, as they won 114-108 to take a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Here are three takeaways from the team’s latest win.
Dwight Howard helped set the tone.
In Game 3, the Nuggets out-rebounded the Lakers 53-34. It’s an astounding figure for any team, but especially so considering the Lakers start two 7-footers and bring one off the bench.
Frank Vogel and the Lakers tried to address that disparity from the jump in Game 4 by starting Dwight Howard, and Howard made an impact immediately on the glass. He had eight rebounds in the first quarter, compared to five total for Denver during the first 12 minutes. Half of those rebounds came on the offensive end and turned into immediate put-backs.
There’s no easier offense than this.
There are trade-offs to playing Howard. The Nuggets can pack the paint and prevent LeBron James and the other Lakers perimeter players from attacking the basket and facilitating with the drive-and-kick game. But Howard made up for it with his presence on the boards, scoring more second-chance points himself in the first quarter (eight) than Denver had for the whole game (six). He also got Nikola Jokic tired early, and Jokic was never in rhythm for the rest of the night, finishing with just 16 points and seven rebounds.
The Lakers like to vary their looks throughout the game, often electing to close with a small lineup. But it helps to throw the first punch, and that’s what Howard did in the starting lineup.
The Lakers were more physical throughout.
It wasn’t just the rebounding, though it certainly makes a difference when a team rebounds 39.1% of its misses and wins the board battle 51-39. The Lakers also earned 35 trips to the free-throw line, 14 apiece from Anthony Davis and James. When not guarded by Paul Millsap, who continues to befuddle Davis with his brute strength, Davis was undeterred in his path to the rim. He took seven of his 15 field-goal attempts in the paint, making five.
Getting to the foul line itself was important, but the Lakers also did well to draw fouls on important Nuggets, as Jokic and Millsap both ended the game with five fouls and were forced to the bench for long stretches. In a battle of attrition, any minor advantages are critical.
The Lakers still get too jumper-happy at times. James’ shot profile in particular would look loads better if he nixed the five long mid-rangers — all misses, in case you were wondering — in exchange for posting up a few more times. But for the most part, the team created action towards the basket, and won as a result of controlling the paint.
There may be no answers for Jamal Murray.
It’s a good thing the Lakers limited Jokic on Thursday, because Jamal Murray continues to dazzle in this matchup. Some of the shots Murray was hitting defied the physics; the way he kept his dribble alive to create an opening demanded a rewind half the time. He finished with 32 points and eight assists, and no lead feels safe when Murray has the ball in his hands.
That being said, the Lakers may have found some answers for Murray. The Lakers committed harder to chasing him off the line, and Murray went scoreless from three Thursday, which limits his efficiency, if ever so slightly. The Lakers used Davis on Murray, pre-switch, for several possessions in the first half, and for all his gifts, Murray can’t really shoot over Davis. When Howard is in the game, that also provides some measure of backline defense if Murray gets past Davis.
James also took the Murray matchup down the stretch. Murray got the better of James his fair share of possessions, most of them coming earlier in the game, and Murray puts a lot of pressure on James to protect the rim because the Denver point guard can beat just about anybody to the basket. James recovered in time to get two crucial stops on Murray in the final five minutes to protect the Lakers’ slim lead, but that’s a tough ask of James for the entirety of a game.
So much of this series has come down to which teams’ stars are better that given night. The Laker duo came out on top in Game 4, and that’s why L.A. is up 3-1. However, with two offensive dynamos in Jokic and Murray, there is always a chance of a Denver comeback. But the Lakers have Denver on the ropes, and on Saturday, they will try to be the first team this postseason to actually finish them off.