The Los Angeles Lakers have a fight on their hands in the Western Conference Finals, and it might be the best thing that could have happened to them.
On Sunday night, the Lakers defeated the Nugget 105-103 in Game 2, thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Anthony Davis. It was another incredible playoff moment that will go down in franchise lore, but it’s the minutes before Davis’ heroics that might end up being the most important.
For the majority of the night, the Lakers looked comfortable, which wasn’t anything new. Against their previous two playoff opponents, the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, the Lakers looked right at home, or at home as they can be in the Disney bubble, anyway.
Sure, they lost Game 1 of each series, but after that, it was smooth sailing. Despite all the talk of the Blazers being the best eight-seed to come along in years and the Rockets presenting small-ball problems that Los Angeles wouldn’t be able to solve, in the end, it didn’t matter.
The Lakers were more talented, played harder, and executed their game plan, so they won. Did so both convincingly and without having to exert themselves too much.
Portland and Houston were legitimately good teams, and their defeats are a testament to the might of this Lakers squad, but it may have done L.A. a disservice by not forcing them to push themselves.
Both the Blazers and Rockets broke, accepting that they couldn’t run with the Lakers. Heck, by game five the Rockets looked more ready to leave than Chevy Chase in his last season of “Community.”
Then, instead of a much-anticipated matchup with the L.A. Clippers awaiting them in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers drew the Nuggets; a scrappy young team that improbably fought back from 3-1 series deficits in both of the preceding rounds.
Denver took out the Clippers, but few believed they would pose any kind of threat to the Lakers. That can no longer be the case. The Nuggets have proven that they won’t break, and that makes them dangerous.
The first game played out a familiar narrative, with the Lakers dominating their less-experienced opponents, but Sunday night’s matchup threw a prime Clayton Kershaw curveball into the story.
For the first time in weeks, the Lakers looked mortal, and the Nuggets drew blood. Los Angeles led by 10 at halftime, but the Nuggets cut it to four by the end of the third quarter. The Lakers made a push and found themselves up eight with three minutes to play, expecting Denver to waive the proverbial white flag and concede the game.
Instead, the Nuggets offered no surrender and the Lakers fell apart. They missed shots or turned the ball over on four straight possessions, with two of the most egregious trips surprisingly coming as a result of a LeBron James air ball and ugly turnover which saw him slip and fall to the ground on a drive to the basket.
A Davis floater in the paint stopped the bleeding, but prior to his buzzer-beater, the Nuggets had gone an 11-2 run in three minutes and looked poised to steal the win.
Davis’ dagger came against the run of play, but also seemed so fitting given the gorgeous Black Mamba jerseys the Lakers were wearing that night. After the ball dropped through the net, Davis screamed “Kobe!” and one can’t help but think that the Lakers legend was smiling somewhere in that moment.
It was incredible, and a shot the team and their fans will treasure forever.
But it doesn’t erase the preceding near collapse, and that’s what the Lakers now have to focus on. For much of the second half, Denver was the team that executed better, made shots and looked more aggressive. Their defense applied pressure and the Lakers obliged, settling for long jumpers instead of the shots at the rim that they saw in the first half.
Denver’s young stars, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, thrived. Jokic in particular wreaked havoc on Los Angeles’ defensive schemes.
Denver was determined to slow the Lakers’ fast break by retreating back on defense like their lives depend on it. The Lakers’ half-court offense couldn’t generate enough good looks in response.
Getting stops allowed the Nuggets to go into attack mode and score, thus forcing the Lakers to take the ball out of their own basket and go against a set Denver defense. Rinse and repeat.
Yes, the Lakers may have won, and provided an unforgettable moment in doing so. But they also showed that they can be defeated if they don’t play well. The Nuggets know it, and now the Lakers do too.
The Lakers have looked good in the playoffs, but the game plan to beat them is clear: make them play half court offense and invite jump shots.
Make no mistake, the Lakers are the better than the Nuggets. More experienced. More talented. But for a few moments, they looked… well, they looked somewhat like the Clippers did in Game 7 of their series against Denver: hesitant, unsure, and thrown off by a locked-in Nuggets defense.
When the celebration settles down from Davis hitting the biggest shot of his career, head coach coach Frank Vogel will walk the team through the film. They will make adjustments to counter the strategies the Nuggets employed.
Beyond the x’s and o’s, there will also need to be a renewed sense of urgency. As tempting as it may be to look ahead to the NBA Finals, the second half showed the Lakers that, as comfortable as things have been for them, the Nuggets can make it uncomfortable very quickly if given an opportunity.
But steel sharpens steel, and championship teams needs to not just know their weaknesses but also be pushed to mitigate them.
The threat that the Nuggets now pose should help bring the best out of the Lakers, and might be just the push they needed to take their game to the next level.
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