In the NBA playoffs, Game 4 is often the pivotal game of a series. Unless one team is up 3-0, it’s a chance for the team that is on the wrong side of a 2-1 deficit to tie things up, and an opportunity for the team that is ahead to all but close things out. With the Lakers holding a 2-1 lead on the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, that’s exactly the scenario both teams will be heading into tonight.
With the Nuggets taking the most recent game — and nearly winning Game 2 — they currently have all the momentum, even if they don’t have a series lead. This team isn’t going to give up even if the Lakers take a 3-1 lead, but unless L.A. actually believes it should tank to avoid activating Denver’s magical 3-1 deficit powers, the onus is definitely on the purple and gold to take a decisive lead in the series tonight.
Here are four things they could do in order to put themselves one game away from the NBA Finals.
Start Dwight Howard
There’s no sense in beating around the bush on this one, you all probably knew it was coming. And this isn’t even some argument that JaVale McGee has been terrible when guarding Jokic, and he actually did a decent job in Game 3 in particular. Matchup data from NBA.com isn’t perfect, and does have noise over a three-game sample size. But with those caveats noted, in 19 partial possessions against McGee, Jokic has shot 5-11, turned the ball over once, and the Nuggets have scored 24 total points. That’s fine, but it’s not as well as the Lakers have fared with Howard on him.
In 35.5 partial possessions while facing Howard, Jokic has shot 3-7 from the field and turned the ball over five times while the Nuggets have scored 26 points as a team. That’s essentially the same amount of total points in nearly 20 more possessions, which is pretty great considering that Jokic is averaging 24.3 points on 54.2% shooting in general.
And as if that wasn’t enough of an argument to make sure Howard is matched up on Jokic for as many minutes as possible, he has also been of great value on offense as well:
On the latest Lakers Exceptionalism Pod I mentioned the Dwight/McGee seal as another counter to the pre-rotating from Denver.— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) September 24, 2020
Dwight doesn't get fully behind Jokic on this play, but causes him to have to keep his weight on Dwight, making this AD drive see 0 rim protection. pic.twitter.com/yJyRpjbbAO
We’ll see if Vogel ultimately makes this change, but considering that he’s started Howard in two of the three second halves in this series so far and publicly mentioned that he’s considering this move twice already, this seems like the most likely of these strategies for the Lakers to try.
Get in the Zone (Defense)
This could honestly refer to the Lakers’ overall engagement in Game 3 outside of the fourth quarter, but what we’re actually referring to here is something the Lakers had a fair amount of success with as they tried to make a furious comeback in that period: Zone defense.
Zone defenses have seen greater success in the NBA this year, and the Lakers doing so in Game 4 allowed their guards to wreak havoc and force bad passes with pressure on the wing, while still keeping rim protection as a safety net behind them. It’s not something that can work for an entire game, but anything that allows a team to go on a 28-8 run in the fourth quarter before running out of gas is at least worth throwing out there for a few stints here and there to see if they can catch different Denver lineups off-guard again.
Stop Playing Markieff Morris at Center
Our own Sabreena Merchant wrote a whole column detailing why this is a bad idea, and it included this rather astounding stat:
The Lakers have played 19 minutes with Morris at the five in three games against the Nuggets and have been outscored by 17 points during that span. That’s the equivalent of losing a game by 43 points. It’s a small sample, but so is a seven-game series, so it’s probably worth considering what has gone wrong in those stretches.
As Sabreena points out, this isn’t an argument to mothball Morris entirely, but they should probably keep him at the four moving forward.
Respect the Nuggets
This was originally going to be a note about forcing the issue going to the basket more, or trying to target Jokic more on defense to fatigue him and get him in foul trouble, but honestly, while those are important notes, the Lakers also just need to take the Nuggets seriously. It’s something they’ve paid lip service to, but haven’t actually done.
From their second-half letdown in Game 2 that required buzzing-beating heroics to avoid dropping the game to not showing up for three quarters on either end in Game 3, a big part of this is just that the Lakers have to commit to playing winning basketball on both ends for an entire game. If they use their defensive pressure intelligently to force live-ball turnovers like they did in the fourth and keep putting pressure on the rim in the halfcourt, there is no reason they can’t just make this a short series. But if they want to keep playing with their food, there is also no reason they can’t end up just like the Clippers: A heralded team that started sizing their championship rings a little too early.
The Lakers are the better team here, but the Nuggets aren’t going to just lay down and concede defeat. It’s time for the Lakers to take that decision out of their hands.
Notes and Updates
- Alex Caruso had a precautionary MRI done on his wrist, but he is listed as probable for Game 4.
- Danny Green (left finger, volar plate injury) and LeBron James (sore right groin) are both also listed as probable. Dion Waiters (sore left groin) remains doubtful.
- The Lakers think LeBron James should be getting more free throws. They’ve spoken to the NBA about it.
Game 4 will tip off at 6:00 p.m. PT, and like the entire Western Conference Finals, it will be televised on TNT.