LOS ANGELES — Tasked with sourcing the born-again Lakers’ end-to-end dominance over the suddenly late-stage, (
two) no-track Warriors, LeBron James recited a familiar refrain in his postgame presser on Saturday night: Efficiency.
In Game 6, the Lakers ceded almost no edge to a Golden State team led by Stephen Curry, still as capable as ever of capitalizing on any brief bout of inattention with a trademark flurry of triples. LeBron landed on the team’s attention to detail as essential to the season’s biggest win, “It was great to be able to play one of our most efficient games... I thought we were locked in for as close to 48 minutes as possible tonight.”
Throughout his Lakers tenure, and especially this season, as he approached and eventually surpassed the league’s all-time scoring record, LeBron has repeatedly cited the aforementioned quality as a central point of pride in his own game. Instead of achieving gaudy totals by way of mere volume, LeBron has made a career-long commitment to doing more with less.
Efficiency as the driver of winning basketball can be counterintuitive. The game’s truly transcendent talents have a way of tallying stats while you’re running to the bathroom or flipping back from a commercial break which can lead to the impression that their impact on the game was less than it really was. Thus, efficiency leads to winning basketball not merely because of the shots made, but perhaps more importantly on the basis of the misses never attempted.
In Game 6, LeBron embodied the word with a 30-9-9 masterpiece on 10 makes in only 14 shots and two turnovers, putting together a surgical dissection of the reigning champs. Despite taking control in key moments of the game, he ran up a “quiet 30” with a handful of show-stopping dimes through incredible restraint, never once hoisting an early-clock long-range heat check or firing off an ill-advised bullet into traffic or at an unsuspecting teammate.
In the space created by the absence of those detrimental moments and emboldened by a reeling defense’s fear of a still rampaging 38-year-old LeBron James, the Lakers’ supporting cast thrived. Riding the wake of superstar performances from James and Anthony Davis, the supporting cast stepped up into a near co-headlining role, highlighted by Austin Reaves’ half-court halftime buzzer-beater and Dennis Schroder’s constant hounding of Curry (at least until his bizarre ejection).
Now, as a reward for their hyper-focused play, they have earned an opportunity to square-off against the Nuggets — the team with the Western Conference’s best record, and arguably, its best player. While the Lakers and Nuggets have found different paths to the Conference Finals — namely, the Nuggets’ pre-All-Star offensive firepower and the Lakers’ post-break defensive staunchness, at their respective bests — they have been two of the league’s most efficient teams.
The Nuggets and Lakers rank first and third, respectively, in playoff net rating, an indication of their consistent attention to detail since the start of the postseason. Although the Lakers’ +5.2 points/100 trails the Nuggets’ +9.2 by a wide margin, it’s fair to say that the seventh-seed Lakers have had a tougher path to this point than the top-seeded Nuggets, needing one more game than Denver to get through the second seeded Grizzlies and the reigning champs.
Providing the foundation for their efficient play is their mutual commitment to never giving away free points, while gobbling up the ones that become available during the course of any given game. In the regular season, the Lakers fouled opponents less often than any other team, while the Nuggets fouled the fourth-least often. Fewer fouls typically means fewer trips to the charity stripe, where the Lakers maintained the lowest opponent free throw rate in the league, while the Nuggets were a bit behind them at 10th. On offense, each team takes as much as they can before the opposing defense is set, as the Nuggets and Lakers have posted the second and third-best playoff averages of fastbreak points per game, respectively.
Unlike these Lakers, who have two all-time co-captains at the tip of the spear, the Nuggets have just one in Nikola Jokic. During the regular season, the Nuggets’ most glaring weakness was their inability to tread water whenever Jokic went to the bench, needing him to cover up their -11.6 net rating in his absence with a +13.2 with him on the floor.
This postseason, however, that dynamic has flipped with Denver’s bench not only holding serve, but outpacing their Jokic-led minutes. Through 11 combined games against Minnesota and Phoenix, the Nuggets are +9.8 with Jokic on and +12.0 when he has sat, albeit in less than a quarter as many minutes. Despite the relatively small sample, Denver’s bench groups have been fantastic, led by their bench trio henceforth deemed the Rainbow Connection (Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, and Jeff Green). In particular, with all due respect to the Lakers’ own Lonnie Walker IV and his second-round heroics, Brown has been perhaps the league’s mini-mid-level exception MVP, giving the Nuggets a jolt of force and whatever else they might need on any given night off the bench.
Contrasting the Nuggets’ top-to-bottom consistency, somewhat surprisingly given the prowess of their top two and some standout performances amongst the supporting cast, it’s the Lakers who have been unable to find a groove whenever their superstar big man comes out of the game. This postseason, the Lakers have been a league-high 31.0 points/100 better with AD in than when he’s out, speaking to both Davis’s all-time awesome defensive run, and the Lakers’ inability to find a facsimile for his rim protection when he leaves the floor.
While it seems like a given that the three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers are virtual certainties to play some exceptionally efficient basketball in the coming games, the series may ultimately be won or lost on the basis of who best survives the minutes where Davis or Jokic rests.
Still, the bulk of the games’ minutes, presuming the persistence of good health, will be played with all three superstars on the floor. For the Lakers, the Nuggets present something of a structural inversion of each of their previous two opponents. After facing guard-dominant offenses with a first-team all-defender to throw at AD, the Lakers will take on a team whose attack orbits around its playmaking center, while its defense depends on the physicality of its bigger wings and guards.
This stylistic switch-up has a chance to pay dividends for the Lakers, even if the Nuggets are the more complete (i.e. efficient) basketball team than either of the two L.A. previously faced. Even if Plan A of kidnapping Jokic fails, the Lakers might have the NBA’s best Plan B. AD has a better chance of disrupting Jokic’s rhythm than Karl Anthony-Towns, Rudy Gobert, or whatever remains of Deandre Ayton, but it’s not something he was tasked with full-time the last time these two teams danced in the postseason.
Back in the Bubble, it was Dwight Howard who was able to get a pre-MVP Jokic in foul-trouble early and render him relatively ineffective as the Lakers rolled through Denver in five, something AD touched on in his Game 6 postgame. This season, the Lakers and Nuggets split four games between them, but Jokic scarcely had to contend with AD, and all four games featured an entirely different iteration of the team.
In fact, those games tell a fairly complete story of the Lakers pre-deadline season. Their first matchup saw the Lakers fall 0-4 to start the season, then get their first win in their sixth game, then AD suffered his initial stress injury to his foot in their third meetup, and the Lakers dropped their fourth and final matchup — playing seven players who are no longer on the roster, and just two (Dennis Schroder and Wenyen Gabriel) who have actually stepped on the floor for them during non-garbage time in the playoffs.
Given the drastic changes the Lakers have undergone between then and now, and the growth the Nuggets have achieved since the Lakers bounced them from the Bubble, this should effectively be a series of first impressions — and if fans of the sport in general are lucky, a long and competitive one. Still, given the Lakers’ advantage at the top of their roster (especially with news of Jamal Murray’s illness), their dispatching of superior competition in comparison to the Nuggets’ opponents, and the way Anthony Davis may be uniquely positioned to counter Jokic’s offensive strengths and exploit his defensive weaknesses, the Lakers are in a great shape to make their second Finals appearance in four years.
Prediction: Lakers in 6.
All quotes acquired firsthand unless otherwise noted. Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.