With the offseason still ongoing, now is the perfect time to dive into a few of the Lakers’ most memorable playoff moments. However, the goal here isn’t just to remember these moments, it is to remember the moments leading up to THE moment that overshadowed everything in that game, and sometimes the entire series. So let’s travel back in time history and recontextualize some of our favorite Lakers memories in order to fully appreciate their awesomeness.
In the third and likely final entry of this series of articles, I re-watched Game 2 of the 2020 Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Nuggets. As with most of the games during those 2020 NBA Playoffs in the Orlando bubble, the Lakers had a decent-sized lead early. However, that gap quickly closed in the second half, leading to the Lakers needing a game-winner to keep the series from being tied at 1-1.
Battle of Big Men
I won’t set the scene too much for this one like I did for Derek Fisher’s 0.4 buzzer-beater or Robert Horry’s game-winner against the Kings.
We all know how the two teams got here on the two-year anniversary of Game 2. The Lakers had just finished beating (Russell Westbrook and) the Rockets in the conference semifinals after besting the Trail Blazers in the first round. The cardiac Nuggets of those playoffs had beaten the Jazz in seven games after being down 3-1 in the first round before giving us Lakers fans some hearty chuckles by doing the same thing in the semifinals against the Clippers in one of the most notable choke jobs you’ll see from an NBA team.
Those four series set up LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Lakers squaring off against Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and the Nuggets. All four players had shining moments in the series; however, this game was headlined by the battle between AD and Jokić.
The two ended the night leading their respective teams in scoring, with AD scoring 31 and Jokić scoring 30. Surprisingly — especially when you have the added perspective of the past two seasons — Davis did more damage outside of the paint than Jokic as the big Serbian had to get nearly all of his points the nitty, gritty way (more on that later).
Comeback Nuggets re-emerge
The best scenario to be in during an NBA Playoffs series is up 3-0. The second-best scenario to be in may be down 3-1 if you are the 2020 Nuggets.
The Nuggets showed they weren’t scared of any deficit up to this point in these playoffs, and they showed it yet again during this game. Although they found themselves leading in the game as late as 0.1 seconds left in the game, the Lakers had them in a 16-point hole once late in the 2nd quarter and another time early in the 3rd quarter.
That 3rd quarter lead was 70-54, which dwindled to 74-65 before LeBron checked out with 4:33 left in the frame. As was the case for every single Lakers roster that we’ve seen since LeBron came to L.A., things quickly went south without him on the floor as Murray and the rest of the Nuggets were able to get to the rim a few times before LeBron checked back in two and a half minutes later. In that span of time, the Lakers only made one field goal, resulting in a slim 78-75 advantage. L.A. ended up leading 82-78 going into the final quarter.
Were the Lakers lucky?
We’ll get to that question above near the end of this section. First, let’s talk about the game that LeBron James had.
He led all Lakers players at halftime with 20 points (no other Laker was in double figures at that point), however, his second half and his 4th quarter, most importantly, were abysmal.
He was forcing a lot of jump shots, missing all three of his 3-point attempts in the final quarter. When he did decide to drive, the Nuggets' defense was smart in putting him in awkward positions in the middle of the paint, leaving LeBron looking a little confused on whether or not to take the ball to the rim or kick it out. It led to four second-half turnovers for LeBron, with two of those happening in the 4th quarter to match his measly two points in the closing frame.
Thankfully, the Lakers were carried by Anthony Davis just as they were at many times during those bubble playoffs, as the big man scored 22 points on 8-of-13 field-goal shooting in the second half.
The team was also lifted by some miraculous 3-point baskets, one from Rajon Rondo, one from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and one from AD. You can see all three below.
Rondo’s isn’t too insane, but let’s be honest... if he would have missed that while you were watching live, you would have been irate. KCP’s was definitely improbable, as he just hoisted one as the shot clock was closing in on him. AD’s wasn’t weird to see during those beautiful (basketball) days of September 2020, however, it doesn’t even feel possible to see him make that type of shot these days.
Speaking of KCP and AD, a quote this summer actually gave me the idea to include this in the “What We Don’t Remember” series...
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on joining the Nuggets: “I always tell people this story. If AD didn’t hit that 3, I think we would have lost that series. That’s what I think about this Denver team.” pic.twitter.com/GhMGGPXuB4— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) July 10, 2022
A caveat should be included in KCP’s thoughts above. This was his first media appearance since being dealt to the Nuggets by the Wizards. KCP may be exaggerating his love of this Nuggets roster to endear himself to the fans early.
These Nuggets didn’t win a second game in the series after winning Game 3, reducing credit from the idea that they had a great chance at winning the series if they were on the better end of this Game 2.
But if we are to entertain the idea of a world in which the Nuggets advance past the Lakers in the bubble, well then these closing moments will be even more exhilarating looking back than they were in the moment.
The moments leading up to the moment
The best player in the 4th quarter wasn’t on the Lakers. No, that honor goes to Nikola Jokić, who scored 12 in the closing quarter. He made four field goals, with all of them coming in the final 2:42 of the game. One of the four made field goals was his lone 3-pointer of the game on an open shot, however, the three others came in extremely difficult ways.
The most difficult of which can be seen first in the clip below, when Jokic just tapped an air-balled shot from Murray right over the rim. Next, you’ll see AD’s responding floater that came about from the Nuggets willingly putting PJ Dozier on him on the perimeter. Next, Jokić tries to make the statement that he’s the best big man on the floor by pushing AD all the way down to the restricted area for an easy hook shot.
The Lakers were now down 103-102 with 20.8 seconds remaining. The following play occurs.
There are a couple of “What if?” scenarios to discuss with this play:
- Alex Caruso should have been the hero of the evening with one of the more wide-open 3-point attempts you’ll see. However, the Nuggets would have had time for a response on the other end.
- What if Murray just contested Danny Green’s shot on the offensive rebound instead of blocking it? Given how Green shot at times in the bubble and how hurried his shot was, I bet he would have missed. The Nuggets would have been in position for the rebound, and boom, the Lakers are then tied in the series 1-1 with KCP’s worse fears potentially happening later.
Instead, this beautiful moment happens in the Kobe Bryant-inspired jerseys (shout out to Talen Horton-Tucker by the way for somehow not suffering a career-ending injury when AD truck-sticked him).
Number 17, and then the fallout...
There’s a happy ending to be had after AD’s game-winner that featured one of the best “Kobe!” shot calls we’ll probably ever see in an NBA game. After advancing past the Nuggets in five games, they beat the Miami Heat in six games to win the franchise’s 17th championship. LeBron James won his 4th championship and 4th Finals MVP while Anthony Davis won his first-ever ring.
These playoffs were housed in the bubble after the season was suspended for months, causing the 2020-21 season to start less than 2 months after the Lakers got drunk celebrating in Disney World. The two-year tear down of that championship roster started shortly after the confetti stopped falling, as Danny Green and a first-round pick were dealt to the Thunder for Dennis Schröder.
That tear-down happened faster than you might remember, as the Lakers will now be heading into this 2022-23 season with only two players from that 2020 championship team: LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Given where the team is now after the massive trade in 2021 to acquire Russell Westbrook, these 2020 NBA Playoffs seem much farther in the past than two, “quick” years. We’ll see if LeBron and AD can get back to those 2020 heights even faster than when they fell from them, but that’s a worry for a month or so from now.
We’ll use today — or any other day for that matter — to put those worries aside to celebrate one of the best Lakers teams of all time, and the shot from AD that helped them attain that status.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.