The Lakers defeated the Houston Rockets 4-1 in the Western Conference Semi’s, setting up their matchup with the Denver Nuggets in the WCF. Below are three things you need to know prior to Friday’s Game 1 tip off:
BACK TO BIG?
The question that Frank Vogel has gotten more than any other throughout the 2019-20 campaign is how often he plans to use his big lineups – starting JaVale McGee at center and using Dwight Howard at backup center – vs. his “small” groups. We use quotes there because when the Lakers go “small,” it’s with the 6’10’’ Anthony Davis, 6’9’’ LeBron James, 6’8’’ Markieff Morris, 6’8’’ Kyle Kuzma, 6’6’’ Danny Green, or perhaps 6’5’’ Alex Caruso or 6’5’’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The truth is, the Lakers almost always use both types of lineups, and that versatility, provided to the roster by GM Rob Pelinka and employed by Vogel, has been a major key to their success this season. Against Portland, they used both, while Houston was the one exception that saw the Lakers exclusively go small, with Morris in for McGee. Vogel declined to reveal his plans against Denver when he spoke before Wednesday’s practice, but he implied that we could see L.A. return to their big groups.
Conference Finals set.
Lakers vs. Nuggets in the battle for the West. pic.twitter.com/EjVFIb6zjR
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 16, 2020
Now, in the regular season against Denver, L.A.’s most successful lineups against the Nuggets were with Davis at the five … but that doesn’t mean they should exclusively play that way. They most likely will close games that way, as they did against almost every opponent all season. But there’s some benefit to having McGee and Howard weigh on star Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as games and the series goes on, before Davis and LeBron try to finish the job. Davis does so many great things off the basketball on defense, that perhaps you don’t want him defending Jokic for the entire game, especially because Jokic will be the one he’s helping on from time to time.
The fact that Morris played so well defensively and shot the ball as he did against Houston will give Vogel confidence in going to that group as well, especially if L.A.’s big units aren’t playing great. And that’s the beauty of the Lakers roster. They can switch things up as needed. Denver doesn’t have that same ability. Jokic is a tremendous All-NBA player, and needs to be on the court; but when he is, the Nuggets are limited in how they can play defense, since he’s generally going to have to be in a drop coverage.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 18, 2020
MURRAY AND JOKIC ON BOTH ENDS
Jamal Murray and Jokic form one of the NBA’s most potent duos on the offensive side of the court. At the same time, they aren’t the strongest defenders on the opposite side of the floor. In the regular season, Jokic had an offensive rating of 113.4 and a defensive rating of 108.9, while Murray clocked in at 113.0 on O and 107.7 on D. The spread is more dramatic in the postseason, with Jokic a 116.2 on O/117.1 on D, and Murray a 115.1/113.0. For comparison’s sake, LeBron and AD have been great on both ends; LeBron is a 117.3/102.1, and AD 116.1/101.4.
On offense, Murray and Jokic run a devastating screen/roll or pick and pop game. Both players can make shots from all three levels on offense – at the rim, in the mid-range, and from three. The other three Nuggets on the floor, whomever they are, typically get their open looks as a result of the action between Murray and Jokic. Both players can screen for one another, with Murray popping off Jokic and getting the Serbian center into a potential mismatch, or Jokic rolling or popping off Murray’s man and asking bigs to follow him to the perimeter or smalls to check him as he backs into the paint. Frank Vogel will undoubtedly dial up a scheme to at least take something away from these actions, as they did with Portland and Houston’s potent offenses.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 14, 2020
On the other end, a goal for many teams has been to get Murray and Jokic involved in screen/roll action defensively, to try and get Jokic defending in space on the perimeter, or create a mismatch with someone like LeBron going at Murray. Say, if Murray is defending Alex Caruso in crunch time, then Caruso would set the screen on LeBron’s man to force a switch from Murray onto LeBron. How both teams perform in these various actions could go a long way towards deciding the series.
LEBRON AND AD AT THE RIM
First, a stat, courtesy of our guy Joey Ramirez:
NBA’s best shooting percentage in the restricted area this postseason (minimum 35 attempts):
1) Anthony Davis (79.0%, 49-of-62)
2) LeBron James (76.6%, 59-of-77)
— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) September 17, 2020
To piggy back, Denver was in the middle of the pack (15th) in points in the paint allowed in the regular season (47.6), and ranked just 13th of 16 teams in the playoffs (44.4). Meanwhile, the Lakers were second in points in the paint in the regular season (52.4), and first in the playoffs (49.6).
Things don’t always play out in Game 1, but over the course of the series, the theory would be that LeBron and AD are able to both get to, and finish at, Denver’s rim. Meanwhile, the Nuggets should not be able to score nearly as easily in L.A.’s paint, against the team ranked third in paint points allowed in the playoffs (36.6).
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 17, 2020
A massive gap in 3-point shooting, or at the free throw line, can mitigate scoring at the rim, but the Lakers have typically shot the ball well enough to keep margins close, relying on a dominant defense, transition play and collective basketball IQ. Denver has made 13.4 3’s per game in the playoffs, to L.A.’s 12.1, though their percentage is much higher at 39.1 percent to LAL’s 35.9. The Nuggets have not gotten to the foul line much, however, attempting 19.1 – last amongst playoff teams – to LAL’s 24.5 (6th). The Lakers also ranked second in rebounding (46.9) to DEN’s 13th (42.2) and first in assists (25.8) to DEN’s 8th (22.3).
Regardless of stats in a small sample size, Denver is a confident, resilient team that deserves the kind of full respect that LeBron explicitly afforded them in his Thursday media session.
“We’re preparing for an extremely dangerous, extremely well-coached, extremely great team in the Nuggets,” said LeBron. “That’s been our only focus … (they’re) very resilient, very confident, very driven. It takes a lot of energy, effort and a lot of desperation to be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit, and they did it twice. So the respect level is out of this world for what we have for this ballclub.”
As somebody who engineered a 3-1 comeback to beat the Warriors in the 2016 Finals for Cleveland, LeBron doesn’t sound like somebody who’s going to be caught sleeping on Denver. And ultimately, how and if the Nuggets can find answers to LeBron and AD that weren’t there in their four regular season matchups – L.A. went 3-1, though one win was in the meaningless seeding games – may be the biggest factor in the Western Conference Finals.