Despite losing Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to the top-seeded Denver Nuggets, the Lakers left the arena with a sense of optimism.
They battled back from a double-digit deficit and had a chance to steal a win on the road in the closing minutes. Ultimately, the Nuggets closed them out, but their adjustments worked and also offered a potential path to success in Game 2.
For the most part, that looked to be the case on Thursday night. But then the fourth quarter happened, and the optimism that surrounded the team earlier in the week took a severe hit with every Jamal Murray jumper swished in front of their eyes.
As their current 0-2 hole suggests, there is plenty of room left for improvement for the Lakers if they hope to turn this series around.
Let’s take a look at three takeaways from the 108-103 loss, including a 6’8” silver lining.
Self-inflicted mistakes in transition
After getting pummeled in the halfcourt by Nikola Jokic’s on-ball wizardry in Game 1, the Lakers’ defense hunkered down and found some much-needed success in Game 2.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets had a blistering offRTG of 128.6 in the halfcourt in the team's first matchup. But behind a slew of looks thrown Jokic’s way and early shooting struggles from Murray, Denver managed just a 91.6 offRTG in Game 2.
Regardless of the final result, that’s a major turnaround and something the team can build off of going forward.
That said, while L.A. gave Denver fits within the halfcourt, they were continuously undone by their shoddy transition defense.
Through two games, there has been a clear emphasis in the Nuggets’ scouting report to not pass up any opportunity to attack early in the shot clock, especially following the Lakers’ misses.
An unbelievable 47.4% of Denver’s live rebounds led to a transition opportunity in Game 2, their highest mark since March 23. For context, the Nuggets ranked 12th in the same category during the regular season with a frequency rate of 29.5%
The Lakers did themselves no favors in slowing down their opposition from leaking out, in fact, there were multiple instances where they themselves were responsible.
One factor was the number of times a Lakers’ player drove to the rim and subsequently fell to the ground. Even if they were fouled on the play, there were too many instances where their chirping at the referees or lack of hustle to get up put their defense at a disadvantage.
The other big contributor to Denver’s ability to generate early scoring opportunities rested on L.A.’s insistence in storming the offensive glass despite being blocked out or out of position.
The Lakers have yet to find success creating second chances as they rebounded just 10% of their misses in Game 2 (their lowest mark of their postseason) and found themselves outnumbered on the other end because of it.
It’s imperative going forward that the team shows both restraint when on the wrong end of calls, and also, reevaluates the value of crashing the boards versus getting back to build a wall if they hope to slow down the Nuggets’ transition assault.
For 36 minutes of action, the Lakers had control of this game. Their aforementioned half-court defense threw a wrench into the Nuggets’ high-powered offense, they got enough scoring from multiple sources and despite their transition issues, looked to be on the verge of heading back to Los Angeles with the series tied.
Unfortunately, much of the success they found earlier in the contest crumbled in front of them during the fourth quarter.
On offense, the team let the Nuggets off the hook as they settled for jumpers on the perimeter instead of getting back to where they found success — attacking the basket. The Lakers attempted 18 shots at the rim in the first half but just eight in the second.
Naturally, the club depends on the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis to spearhead their interior attack, but both were lured further out when the Lakers needed their physicality down low the most.
James in particular was responsible for setting a passive tone in the fourth quarter as his first three attempts from the field came from behind the arc. He finished the night missing all six of his attempts, and is now 0-10 on his 3-point chances in the series.
In a follow-up to his 40-point outburst, Davis had arguably his worst offensive game of the postseason in Game 2 as he scored just 18 points on 4-15 shooting.
He too was baited into relying on the long ball as three of his five attempts in the fourth quarter came from behind the arc. Davis’ sole make at the rim in the second half was a tip-in.
Denver deserves some credit in this as they pushed Jokic even further back into his drop coverage to dissuade the Lakers from getting downhill. But ultimately, a good percentage of the responsibility lies on the players in letting the opposition dictate the terms.
On defense, the Lakers had no answer for Murray’s blistering shooting display. Whether it was off the catch or off the dribble, the Nuggets’ guard caught fire as he scored 23 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter alone, nearly outscoring the Lakers (24) by himself.
It is worth noting that many of Murray’s makes were contested and even up against the clock. So there is a degree of simply tipping your hat to an opponent involved.
But while it seemed like the Lakers had found answers to containing Murray earlier in the contest, he once again presented new problems the team has to now reconsider.
Rui Hachimura filling in the gaps
Despite not getting the result they wanted in Game 2, there were still silver linings that the Lakers can hopefully carry over into Game 3 on Saturday.
One of the biggest bright spots for the purple and gold in the first two games has been the play of Rui Hachimura. As already seen in his output during the team’s first-round series against Memphis, Hachimura’s two-way capability has offered the team some much-needed flexibility on both ends.
Much of the optimism the Lakers had following their series-opening loss revolved around the success they had deploying Hachimura on Jokic, and what that in conjunction allowed Davis and James to do off of the ball.
Hachimura individually wasn't responsible for Jokic’s inefficient scoring outing in Game 2, but he did present the team with a sturdy body and another look they can throw at the two-time MVP in order to free up Davis’ roaming ability in particular.
While his role on the defensive end will likely continue to be critical in the Lakers matching up with against Denver’s size, it was Hachimura’s offense on Thursday that arguably played a bigger role in helping the Lakers almost come out with the win.
Often utilized as a screener in non-Davis lineups, Hachimura has good feel slipping into space and has the requisite skills offensively to score out of multiple situations.
If there’s room, Hachimura can catch-and-shoot or attack a closeout via his pull-up or getting all the way to the rim. If the defense loses sight of him, he possesses enough foot speed and timing with his cuts to finish around opposing centers.
Through his scoring on and off the ball, Hachimura made Jokic work on both ends with his unique skillset.
Although drastically different players, as the team saw in their matchup with Steph Curry, sometimes the best game plan in limiting a star is to simply wear them out.
In games where James and Davis are unable to rise to that occasion, like we saw in Game 2, the Lakers will need to have the confidence in someone else to do so. So far, Hachimura looks willing and capable of doing the job.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.