Three takeaways from Nuggets starting fast, hanging on to beat Lakers in Game 1
For the better part of three quarters, it looked like the Denver Nuggets were going to make a statement with a blowout win. They didn’t, they barely hung on.
In the final minutes, it looked like the Lakers were going to steal Game 1 on the road. They didn’t, coming up just short.
Both sides exit Game 1 of the Western Conference finals with positives and some things to work on, but only the Nuggets left with a win at home, 132-126. Game 2 is Thursday night in Denver.
Here are three takeaways from Game 1.
1) The Lakers came out flat and it cost them Game 1
The Denver Nuggets came out of the locker room playing with the force and determination of title contenders: Their offense looked crisp running through Nikola Jokić, players and the ball moved, they defended well enough and they got out in transition every chance they could. Denver was aggressive and looked like a team trying to make a statement as their lead ballooned to 18 at the half.
The Lakers came out with a lack of defensive urgency, which dug them a hole they never climbed out of.
“Yeah, it took us a half to get into the game and that was pretty much the ballgame right there,” LeBron said. “They punched us in the mouth to start.”
The Lakers’ biggest problem early — and all game, really — was the inability to get stops.
The Lakers started with a smaller lineup and found themselves reacting defensively early, rather than trying to impose their will, and that left them half a step slow. It showed in how little they impacted Denver’s off-ball movement. It showed on the boards, where the Nuggets had nine offensive rebounds in the first quarter — six by Jokic — and led by a dozen after a half.
It showed in transition defense, where the Nuggets pushed the pace and started 28% of possessions in transition in the first half, the Lakers were slow to get back, the Nuggets didn’t fear the Lakers small guard in transition defense, and it led to a lot of open baskets.
The Lakers eventually found their focus, but they could never fully close the gap.
2) In a battle of strengths, round one went to Nikola Jokić and the Nugget offense
Game 1 was entertaining in the way high-scoring affairs often are, with great shotmaking by both sides and both teams having an offensive rating above 130. Plus, it was a good night for over bettors.
It was not a good night for the Lakers’ defense, which had been the best in the playoffs through two rounds (and the best in the NBA after the All-Star break). Denver’s defense was not impressive either. Whichever side figures out its defensive answers first will advance to the NBA Finals.
That didn’t make the offensive fireworks any less impressive.
Nikola Jokić was brilliant, finishing with 34 points on 12-of-17 shooting, a ridiculous 21 rebounds, and 14 assists. Yes, another triple-double, but maybe more impressively he outrebounded the Lakers 16-13 by himself before halftime.
Part of the Lakers’ slow start is that the Nuggets have shooters everywhere, they move to get open, and you need to keep a body on them or Jokić will find them. It led to a balanced attack for the Nuggets with six guys in double figures.
Jamal Murray was 4-of-8 from 3 on his way to 31 points.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 21, Michael Porter Jr. had 15, Bruce Brown had 16 off the bench, and Aaron Gordon added a dozen.
3) The Lakers found things that worked they can bring to Game 2
Darvin Ham and crew made a miscalculation coming into Game 1 — they came out small, with essentially a three-guard lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder and Austin Reaves next to LeBron and Anthony Davis. The Nuggets tore that up and built their big lead.
But the Lakers adjusted, and some of those changes will be back for Game 2.
Offensively, Davis and LeBron were able to get the shots they wanted. AD finished with 40 points of 14-of-23 shooting (after starting 2-of-8), plus had 10 boards.
LeBron was one assist away from a triple-double of 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
The biggest in-game adjustment was to have the size of Rui Hachimura as the initial defender on Jokić — Hachimura is big enough and strong enough to give the two-time MVP as much trouble as anyone is going to. Hachimura on Jokić also allowed Davis to roam as a help defender, his preferred role.
Along those same lines, the Lakers found something with big, non-point-guard lineups (or, non-traditional point guard, they do still have LeBron on the court). Size mattered, Denver is a big team and the Lakers figured out they have to match it.
Then, of course, there was a master class from LeBron, getting the switch he wanted and attacking a defender, often backing Murray down in the post.
“I’d rather clean things up after a win in the Western Conference finals than after a loss, so I will take it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But much work to do… Thursday night, it’s gonna be even that much harder because they’re gonna get off to a better start, I imagine. And so our game plan discipline and our defensive acumen have to be a lot better for closer to 48 minutes.”
Let the adjustments begin.