DENVER – After a close 132-126 loss in Game 1 to the Denver Nuggets, LeBron James of the Lakers couldn’t help but express his astonishment. With the Lakers trailing by as many as 21 points, being outrebounded by 17, and allowing the Nuggets to score 72 points in the first half, their defense struggled. Yet, they had an opportunity to tie the game with a missed three-pointer by James from the top of the key in the final 45.2 seconds of the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets demonstrated why they earned the top seed in the West, with their two-time MVP Nikola Jokic delivering an exceptional performance of 34 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists, and two blocks. Jamal Murray also contributed with 31 points on an efficient 12-of-20 shooting.
However, the Lakers showcased their ability to adapt and outmaneuver their opponents, as they did against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in previous playoff rounds. Coach Darvin Ham made several adjustments that paid off in the second half. Combined with Anthony Davis’ strong performance (40 points on 14-of-23 shooting, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks), the Lakers remained competitive.
Defensively, Rui Hachimura took on the assignment of guarding Jokic, allowing Davis to provide support as the last line of defense.
“At times, you have to change matchups and defensive strategies,” explained Ham. “It gave us an opportunity to get back into the game.”
According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, during 55 possessions where Davis defended Jokic, the Nuggets averaged 1.45 points per play and shot 66% from the field. However, when Hachimura guarded Jokic during 15 possessions, the Nuggets only averaged 0.67 points per play, shooting a mere 20% from the field.
Hachimura, who contributed 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting, highlighted the importance of his defensive role against the Nuggets due to their size advantage. Standing at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, he aimed to limit Jokic’s movement by leveraging his own weight against Jokic’s knee.
Offensively, the Lakers targeted Murray when James initiated pick-and-rolls, resulting in James scoring 15 of his 26 points and assisting on six of his nine assists in the second half.
“It’s an essential part of our game plan,” commented Ham on James’ involvement in the second half. “Murray was in foul trouble, making him the obvious target we tried to exploit.”
Now trailing in a series for the first time in the playoffs, Lakers’ leaders expressed confidence in their team’s ability to bounce back.
“We’ll be fine,” assured Ham. “Trust me.”
James added, “We’ll improve. We acknowledge that we didn’t perform up to our potential in the first half… But we will definitely be better in Game 2.”
Considering the Nuggets’ starting lineup featuring Michael Porter Jr. (6-10) and Aaron Gordon (6-8) alongside Jokic, it seems evident that starting Hachimura (with his size) in Game 2 would be a wise move for Ham.
However, the decision of whether to bring either Dennis Schroder (6-1) or D’Angelo Russell (6-4) from the Lakers’ starting backcourt off the bench remains uncertain. Russell, who struggled in Game 1 with a 4-for-11 shooting performance and only nine minutes played in the second half, is a likely candidate for such an adjustment. Yet, ESPN sources indicate
that there is concern within the team that demoting Russell from the starting lineup might negatively affect his morale, as he has started every other game in the playoffs. On the other hand, Schroder has previously shown comfort coming off the bench, as he didn’t start until Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors. Russell was seen taking extra shots on the court in his uniform after the game.
For the first time in the playoffs, the Lakers, seeded seventh, find themselves in the underdog position. They now need to focus on leveling the series instead of playing with a lead.
“In the postseason, whether you’re down one or down 20, a loss is a loss,” stated James. “They are up 1-0, and we have to approach Game 2 with a sense of urgency. We need to improve in all aspects of the game, rebound better, and overall play at a higher level.”