DENVER — LeBron James marched off the court after the Lakers’ 132-126 Game 1 loss Tuesday to the Denver Nuggets, closed his eyes, craned his head back and let out an, “Oh my god,” after Los Angeles nearly stole the Western Conference finals opener.
The Lakers trailed by as many as 21, were outrebounded by 17 and allowed Denver to score 72 points by the break — the most L.A.’s defense has allowed in any half all postseason — and yet had a chance to tie the score with a 3-pointer by James from the top of the key that missed with 45.2 seconds remaining in the fourth.
The Nuggets showed they were the West’s No. 1 seed for a reason, with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic authoring a brilliant night with 34 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists and two blocks, and Jamal Murray scoring 31 on an efficient 12-for-20 clip.
But the Lakers also showed how they’ve been able to outmaneuver the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors so far in these playoffs, with several adjustments by coach Darvin Ham paying off in the second half, which, along with a strong effort from Anthony Davis (40 points on 14-of-23 shooting, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks), gave them a real shot.
Defensively, Rui Hachimura switched onto Jokic, allowing Davis to roam as the back line of defense.
“You have to switch up matchups at times and you have to switch up coverages,” Ham said. “Gave us a chance to get back into the game.”
On 55 Denver possessions when Davis was the final defender on Jokic, the Nuggets averaged 1.45 points per play and shot 66% from the field, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. There was a stark difference with Hachimura as the final defender on Jokic: Denver averaged just 0.67 points per play in 15 possessions and shot 20% from the field.
“I think it’s going to be big for me this series because they are very big, and we need the size,” said Hachimura, who added 17 points on 8-for-11 shooting beyond his defensive impact. “I think it’s going to be a good one.”
Hachimura said he was prepped by the Lakers’ coaching staff to expect the assignment on Jokic at times in the series. He’s massive in his own right at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds, but he said in order to gain leverage on the 6-11, 284-pound Jokic, he tried to plant his weight on Jokic’s knee to limit the big man’s movement.
Offensively, L.A. hunted Murray when James initiated pick-and-rolls, and the 20-year veteran was efficient, scoring 15 of his 26 points and tallying six of his nine assists after the break.
“It has to be a part of it and our plan of attack,” Ham said of James controlling the action in the second half. “Murray was in foul trouble, and so he was the obvious target we tried to go at.”
With the Lakers trailing in a series for the first time all postseason, several of the team’s leaders expressed confidence about where their team is.
“We’ll be OK,” Ham said. “Trust me.”
Added James: “We’ll be better. We know we didn’t play up to our capabilities in the first half. … But you know we’ll be better in Game 2, that’s for sure.”
With the Nuggets also starting the 6-10 Michael Porter Jr. and the 6-8 Aaron Gordon alongside Jokic — not to mention the 6-5 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and 6-4 Murray in the backcourt — a starting lineup adjustment for Game 2 to have Hachimura’s size on the floor from the opening tip seems like an obvious play for Ham.
What’s not so obvious is whom out of L.A.’s starting backcourt from Game 1 — the 6-1 Dennis Schroder and the 6-4 D’Angelo Russell — makes more sense to come off the bench.
Russell — who shot just 4-for-11 and played only nine minutes in the second half after registering a plus-minus of -23 in 17 first-half minutes — would naturally be under consideration; however, multiple team sources told ESPN that there is concern the team could “lose” the 27-year-old point guard if he views the adjustment as a demotion after starting every other game this postseason. Schroder has already shown he can be comfortable as a substitute, as he didn’t start until Game 6 against Golden State. Russell got up extra shots after the game on the court while still in uniform.
For the first time all playoffs, the No. 7-seeded Lakers get to feel like the underdogs, and consider what it will take to even up the series instead of playing with the series lead.
“In the postseason, it doesn’t matter if you cut it to one or you’re down 20, if you lose, you lose,” James said. “They are 1-0, and we have to come back with desperation going into Game 2. We have to play better, we have to rebound better. … We need to be better in all facets of the game.”