Although it counted the same as any other game on the schedule this year, the Lakers’ 119-107 opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets felt a bit heavier. After chatter from both sides heading into their first matchup since Denver swept Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers wrestled with the familiar ghosts that haunted them in their playoff exit.
It’s difficult — and unwise — to make any overarching proclamations after a single game. Yet, there are lessons the Lakers can take from their latest loss to the Nuggets that would behoove them to take to heart going forward. Yes, there were positives even in defeat. But the most important may come in the form of learning from their mistakes.
What follows are three takeaways from the game, and how the Lakers could go about exorcising past specters and potential new ones as the season is officially underway.
One of the most agreed upon weak links of the Lakers last season was their transition defense. Like any aspect of that end of the floor, there are a myriad of factors that play a role in being strong or weak in preventing the opposition from scoring.
From the Lakers’ perspective, two common flaws carried over from last year that once again reared their ugly head in their season opener.
It often goes overlooked, but what a team does on offense — specifically their level of aggressiveness on the offensive boards — plays a large role in establishing a strong barrier when their opponent tries to hit their jets.
On Tuesday, the Lakers frequently attacked the glass for second-chance opportunities. And while they did pull down 13 offensive rebounds, they only scored a measly four points in these possessions. Perhaps more harmful however is what their pursuit opened up for the Nuggets on the other end.
When Los Angeles missed in their attempt to secure the board, Denver immediately took advantage by racing up the court against a suddenly scrambled defense.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets registered a blistering 36.4% transition frequency off of live rebounds against the Lakers. For context, Sacramento led the NBA last season with a 35.1% mark.
Although he is often misguidedly tagged as being unathletic or slow-footed, Nikola Jokic spearheaded Denver’s running game. Whenever the Lakers were out of position to get back, it was the center who either whipped the ball ahead to exploit the numbers advantage or he created the outlet by beating Anthony Davis down the floor.
Naturally, there is always the temptation to try and snag an extra scoring chance when possible, especially against a team that scores on what seems like every trip down the floor. However, there is a level of discipline and calculation that the Lakers need to take into account against every team — not just Denver.
Dually, if they hope to improve on their 26th-ranked transition defense from last season, they also have to put in the effort in racing back to build a wall. Their rebounding principles and shot profile play important roles — long shots tend to equal long boards — but it may eventually boil down to just giving a damn.
Man vs. Machine
Robots, cyborgs, machines, whatever you fancy, these steel-plated creations have historically been designed to not make mistakes. It’s in their programming and wiring to remove any doubt of a slip-up. Because errors are reserved only for the flesh.
Although beautiful and lively, Jokic and the rest of the Nuggets often play basketball like they are following systematic inputs and outputs. If an opponent misses a back cut, their motherboard lights up where the pass should go. If a defender goes under on a screen, that next signal says to fire away. Their offense is precise, dynamic, and unforgiving.
After seeing the challenges Denver presents firsthand in the postseason, the Lakers also got a reminder on Tuesday of how the Nuggets feast on self-inflicted mistakes.
Take this play for example. The Lakers are initially able to breathe a sigh of relief when Jokic picks up his dribble behind the arc as Denver’s off-ball movement gets shut off.
However, this momentary roadblock is cleared when Gabe Vincent confusingly opts to switch off the big to make room for Davis to occupy his natural cover. This split-second decision leaves Jokic completely open which he takes advantage of.
On this play, the Lakers’ defense is in scramble mode after the Nuggets corral the offensive rebound. With two players making the questionable choice of defending Aaron Gordon in the corner, this leaves Christian Braun open for a far too lengthy period.
Although D’Angelo Russell recognizes the breakdown and even points it out, LeBron James does not make the tag in time.
It is these types of mental lapses that simply are not affordable against a finely-tuned offense like the Nuggets have. The season opener was just the latest example of this.
Overall, the Lakers tried on that end and weren’t simply complacent as Denver carved them up. Sometimes, however, it’s also important to recognize when to tip your cap.
With the game still in the balance in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets proceeded to break the Lakers’ body and spirit with a single play. The string of scores conceived out of the same setup highlighted the varying degrees of optionality, cohesion, and processing speed the team possesses in the half-court.
Breakdown: The Nuggets ran the same play over and over again to close out the Lakers, scoring 10 points on 4 straight possessions to put the game away. pic.twitter.com/6ZXBdstkPy— Coach Gibson Pyper (@HalfCourtHoops) October 25, 2023
At the same time, it also exemplified the importance of not compounding the already difficult task of beating a machine by slipping up. Taking into account their playoff series and latest matchup, it has often felt the Lakers have needed to inch closer to perfection to beat the Nuggets.
While that’s obviously not the case, the team certainly can and needs to be cleaner the next time they come face-to-face with their metallic counterparts.
Anthony Davis’ quiet second half
As the sun in which everything revolves around his team, Davis is prone to feeling the heat. It’s part of the job. Chief among what makes him a polarizing player and adds volume to his detractors has been what many have deemed as inconsistency. Tuesday night was another case of the starkness in his production.
After scoring 17 points through the first two quarters against the Nuggets and helping the Lakers brush off the champions’ initial haymaker, Davis would end up going scoreless in the second half.
It was a disappointing end to what was shaping up to be a strong message from the center. Additionally, it was also a rerun of the instances his impact has wavered in the past. While it’s easy to simply summarize his struggles against the Nuggets as further proof of him shrinking in the big moments, contextually, it’s unfair to both Davis and Denver to do so.
After an aggressive first half in which he had his way with the defense, the Nuggets made key adjustments in the second half to slow Davis down.
“They started double-teaming, trying to crowd the paint,” Davis said following the game. “I was trying to make the right play, kick it out to our guys when they double. Rui (Hachimura) hit an open three, Gabe (Vincent) had open threes, they just didn’t fall.”
Anthony Davis was quite good against the Nuggets in the first half, logging an efficient 17 points.— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) October 25, 2023
He did not score again.
How the Lakers carved out space for him, how the Nuggets attempted to take it away, and some food AD left on the table.
️ SOUND ON pic.twitter.com/sjHt58Ic3s
The Nuggets not only sent extra help Davis’ way to deter him from scoring in single coverage opportunities but also sent additional bodies to prevent him from even catching the ball
When the Lakers attempted to get Davis involved and downhill out of their pick-and-roll actions, the Nuggets would plant reinforcements to discourage the pass.
In this possession, the Lakers utilized their five-out spacing to get Austin Reaves and Davis in an empty corner opportunity. This is often a near-foolproof attempt to get Davis a touch within space.
Unconventionally, however, the Nuggets shaded Davis’ roll with both Jokic and Braun which forced Reaves to look off the initial option and resulted in a perimeter attempt instead.
While the Nuggets deserve credit for shutting off Davis’ water, he was the first to admit that he has to be better with the looks he did have while also remaining aggressive.
“I missed some easy layups around the rim, little jumpers...But I have to shoot more.”
Davis missed all six of his shot attempts in the second half, but several were chances he expectantly should finish. He will need to prevent these vanishing acts from reoccurring.
Although Davis ultimately left food on the table, the fact there was dinner at all could be seen as a silver lining if capitalized on next time. The Lakers will also have to do their part to put him in a better position to do so.
The Nuggets have undoubtedly been the better team in the two clubs' recent contests. Although it ultimately was just one game, this latest round should serve as a wake-up call for the Lakers that they can’t skip any steps this season on their trek back to contention.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.