What Game 1 of Lakers-Nuggets Tells Us About the Rest of the Series – news today


The conference finals are off to a rollicking good start. The Nuggets held on for a 132–126 win over the Lakers on Tuesday night, building a 20-point lead before white-knuckling through the fourth quarter. The stars starred out. Anthony Davis had 40 points and 10 rebounds. LeBron James put up a casual 26/12/9. And Nikola Jokic absolutely dominated, amassing 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists to lead Denver. (Jamal Murray added 31 points of his own for good measure.)

The second half was particularly interesting. After the Nuggets built their lead, the Lakers came storming back. Los Angeles began shooting the lights out offensively while stacking stops. In the fourth quarter, Los Angeles also had success switching its matchup on Jokic. Anthony Davis began roaming off Aaron Gordon while Rui Hachimura took the initial assignment against Joker. Here are some thoughts on the in-game adjustments, and what we may see in Game 2.

Nikola Jokic had no trouble navigating the Nuggets’ offense while being guarded by Anthony Davis for much of Game 1.

David Zalubowski/AP

Nuggets Made Hay Down Low

One of the big questions headed into this series was how Jokic and Davis would fare against each other. The Joker took the first round, only barely. Davis was sensational offensively. He is going to be a difficult cover for Jokic, especially when the Denver big man also has help responsibilities. Jokic was in total control of the game, though. He was devastating in all facets of the action—post-ups, handoffs, shooting from the outside, rebounding, you name it. He could score on Davis one-on-one while also punishing the Lakers whenever they doubled.

Jokic’s dominance necessitated the Hachimura adjustment. It’s not so much that Rui could stop Joker one-on-one, but allowing Davis to help off Gordon created too much traffic in the paint, and it made it easier for the Lakers to double. Part of the problem was Gordon lurking in the dunker spot during Denver’s offensive possessions. Having Gordon patrol the baseline while Jokic was in the post made it too easy for Davis to stay near the rim. 

That’s a simple adjustment for Denver in Game 2. If Davis is going to guard Gordon, then AG has to either be spaced to the three-point line, or he has to be involved in pick-and-rolls. Though it may have seemed as if the Lakers had the answer for the Nuggets’ offense, Denver will have simple counters to go to in Game 2. Still, I would expect Hachimura to start, and Gordon will have to make the Lakers pay if Davis is guarding him. The counter may be simple. The execution won’t be.

Denver’s Sudden Switching Strategy on Defense

As good as Denver was in the first half defensively—posting a 105.9 defensive rating—it was terrible in the second half, hemorrhaging a ghastly 156.5 points per 100 possessions. Part of it was a lack of focus. The Nuggets looked complacent at times in the third quarter, seemingly happy to concede baskets because they knew they could get it back on the other end. That lack of focus caught up to Denver, though, especially when its bench unit started the fourth. Once the Lakers got on a roll, the Nuggets didn’t look prepared to fight back and get stops.

One interesting quirk: Denver switched quite often in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets are not a switch team, and have rarely gone down that route with Jokic. Michael Malone wasn’t asked about it after the game, so it’s unclear if the switching was an element of surprise or a desperation play. In any event, it wasn’t super effective.

Murray was too often on an island with James. And in other situations, he looked unsure of whether to hedge or commit to switching. That hesitation led to some open looks from three, many of which Austin Reaves was happy to knock down. I don’t think switching is the answer for Denver. The Nuggets had success against the Suns showing hard against Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. At the very least, it’s a coverage the team is much more familiar and comfortable with.

Defense has to be Denver’s biggest concern moving forward. The Nuggets should assume their outside shooting will cool. Jokic won’t really have a place to hide like Davis did. And the Lakers were hitting nearly everything at the rim. Maybe the Nuggets fare better on switches in Game 2, but they offered little resistance with that style on Tuesday.

Jamal Murray had trouble defending LeBron James for much of Tuesday night, but Denver doesn’t often switch on defense and looked lost when leaning on that strategy more in the fourth quarter.

Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, what is perhaps most important is that nobody overreacts to Game 1. There are many more adjustments to be made for both sides. After the first game in a series, it becomes natural to assume every remaining game will be played on the same terms. Some aspects of the action will carry over, many others will not. For now, Denver will happily take the opening win despite the shaky second half. Game 2 will give us a clearer picture on what will be the real pressure points as this series endures. 

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