If watching the NBA and the Lakers for as long as I have has taught me anything, is that the only time there’s a must win game is when elimination is looming. When it’s win or go home, you better win. Otherwise, you live to fight another day. It’s that understanding that is the backdrop for the Lakers as they walk into game 2 vs. the Blazers this evening.
Trailing 0-1, there’s going to be a lot of talk about this game being a must win for the Lakers. It’s not. But…you know…they really should do everything they can to win this game. Trailing 0-2 isn’t the end of the world, particularly with no real home court advantage to speak of in Orlando.1Game 3 will not be in the Rose Garden, you know. That said, when the goal is to win 4 games first, your opponent being halfway there before you win a single game is not the place you want to be. The Lakers need their best effort, then. And they need it now.
What that means isn’t complicated. They need to hit shots and they need to defend at a high level.
The first part of that is something the Blazers control less of than the second, so let’s get it out of the way right now. Portland is going to continue to pack the paint. They’re going to throw bodies and limbs between LeBron and AD and the basket on every possession.
As good as those two are, they’ll still find their way into the paint, but being as smart as they are, only some of those paint touches will lead to shots for themselves. So, when the ball is kicked out, the Lakers are going to have to shoot with confidence and knock down the open looks.
We told you the stats from game 1, a repeat of that “success” rate would be disastrous. If the Lakers want to win, they’ll need to hit double digit 3’s tonight — at least. Don’t get me wrong, Portland can still win the battle of the 3-ball, but if the differential leads to them being +24 or some obscene number from outside, the hole to dig out of will be too deep.
No, the Lakers will need to come close to matching the Blazers output. Can they? The shooting numbers from the bubble don’t inspire confidence as an outside observer. That matters less than the confidence the Lakers have in themselves, though. Let if fly like you know it’s going in, fellas.
Defensively, the Lakers plan was sound in game 1 and their execution was solid, but still showed too many cracks late in the game. In the 4th quarter, they played too low on a couple of screens set for Dame and he made them pay with deep bombs. When they tried to adjust, they did so overzealously and opened up the types of easy reads one pass away that led to in-rhythm shots by Gary Trent Jr. and Melo.
The Lakers cannot lose their grip on the rope tonight like they did late in game 1. They must trust their scheme, they must execute their scheme, and they need to do it for 4 quarters. If they can do that, Portland can still hit shots. But at least LA will know they did what they were supposed to. After all, sometimes good offense beats good defense. And when that happens, you tip your cap.
On the coaching side, keep an eye on the rotations and personnel groupings. In game 1, in the 12 minutes that the four-man group of Bron, AD, Kuz, and Caruso shared the floor the Lakers had an Offensive Rating of 107.1, a Defensive Rating of 71.0 and were +8 on the scoreboard. Those four need to share the floor more this game and you can flank them with any number of guys while maintaining effectiveness or to promote different styles.
Put Dwight next to them and you can have two defensive anchors and a strong presence on both backboards. Use KCP or Danny Green and you have more guard help and an extra player who will space to the arc. Or you can play Morris with them and get a mix of paint toughness, extra shot creation from the forward spot, and a capable floor spacer.
A wildcard with this group could end up being Dion Waiters, too. He’s not the caliber defender any of the other players mentioned are, but he’s the lone shot creating guard in the mix who can run a P&R and also space the floor. I’d like to see any of these groups play above some of others that saw too many minutes in game 1.
On this same note, it’s nearly time for Vogel to make a starting lineup change. In fact, some would convincingly argue that time has passed. In last year’s Finals, Nick Nurse decided he was going to replace Danny Green in the starting lineup in each 2nd half with Fred VanVleet. FVV was his best primary defender on Steph Curry and his offensive shot creation was valuable against a switching Warriors defense. That move paid off wonderfully and Nurse rode VanVleet to heavy minutes in each of the final 5 games to help win a championship.
Vogel is likely facing a similar decision with one of KCP, JaVale, or both. Caruso is the Lakers best primary defender vs. Dame while Kuzma is a more versatile defender whose shot-making and floor spacing can help open the floor for Bron and Davis. Both Caruso and Kuz played heavy minutes in game 1, but more minutes with Bron and AD would be beneficial to the Lakers. Vogel would be wise to keep a very close eye on how his starters perform and be ready to make a change. It’s hard to continue to dig yourself out of the hole in a playoff series.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on ESPN and Spectrum SportsNet.