How much control you think the Lakers possess in their series with the Nuggets that they currently lead 2 games to 1 likely depends on 1. How much you think the Lakers playing hard has been an issue this series and 2. How much credit you give the Nuggets for the flow and tenor of the 3 games played to this point.
I fall somewhere in the middle on these. I do feel like the Lakers have let their foot off the gas over stretches of both games 2 and 3. Whether it was a big lead (game 2) or the comfort of being up 2-0 (game 3) that triggered this can only be known by the team itself, but it’s my best guess. That said, since being blown out in game 1, the Nuggets have been the tactically superior team and has made more adjustments in order to be effective. They’ve done more dictating of how possessions unfold, on both sides of the ball, for the last 6 quarters of this series.
This is not insignificant and it impacts how I view where this series stands even though the Lakers are up 2-1. And, I can say honestly that even if the Lakers provide more sustained effort in game 4, it may not be enough if not coupled with some adjustments to put the players in better positions to succeed when exerting that effort.
With that, I hope to see a few tweaks to the gameplan, both from a personnel and schematic perspective.
On the personnel side, I want to see some adjusting of lineups. First, I think it’s time to make a starting lineup change. JaVale McGee has not necessarily played poorly, but Vogel has been playing 4 Centers this series and that feels like one too many. On our most recent LFR Podcast on adjustments, Pete argued to insert Markieff Morris into the starting lineup and, all over the web, you’ll see arguments to start Dwight Howard. Either are good choices, but I do see the argument that Morris likely helps more offensively via shooting and floor spacing while him playing with the starters allows the Lakers to cover up some of the ways he’s been hurt defensively by having him matchup with Millsap more.
Starting Dwight would be fine with me too, particularly because you get whatever benefits of him defending Jokic earlier in the game and the potential to set that early tone could be really meaningful. I would be concerned with fouls should Dwight start, however, so this is something to watch for.
Beyond the “should Dwight start?” question, though, I also want to make sure that Dwight sees some time with LeBron and Caruso in the lineups that play against the Nuggets bench unit when Plumlee is playing C. Not only is that trio mostrous defensively, the Lakers lineups where Morris has played C vs. Plumlee have not gone well and a change is worth exploring. The athleticism discrepancy of the units that feature both Morris on the backline and Rondo at the point of attack vs. the Nuggets bench is showing up in real ways that affect the success of both teams.
This speaks to my bigger goals with any rotation shifts: The Lakers need to do a better job of matching up and leveraging their physical advantages over the course of a full game better than they have. If the Lakers are going to be the “bigger, stronger, faster” team, then be that way all game and don’t play units who cannot exert the same force for a long stretch each half (like they’ve done at the start of the 2nd and 4th quarters).
On the schematic side, the Lakers need to start setting the terms of engagement on more possessions defensively vs. the Nuggets offense. Denver is a patient offensive team and they execute very well, there’s no getting around that. However, they have two really good playmakers in Murray and Jokic, plus other good passing big men in Plumlee and Millsap. Besides those guys, though, their other players aren’t the best playmakers and, besides Porter Jr., aren’t necessarily good shot creators either.
I want the Lakers, then, to try to speed the Nuggets up and get more aggressive at the point of attack — particularly vs. Murray when Jokic is not on the floor. I’d love to see them trap a bit more out of isolation situations (a la the Houston series) and show more pressure at the point of attack vs. Murray on P&R’s and dribble handoff sequences. Get the ball out of his hands and then use the collective athleticism and smarts of the players underneath the ball to rotate and scramble, hopefully speeding the Nuggets up in the process. As many on ball decisions you can force the other Nuggets players into while the defense is running at them and rotating into their lanes and lines of sight, the better.
The primary goal of this is to force turnovers, but also to force misses by giving them a sense that something is open, only to have someone rotating to them hard. It’s those live ball turnovers and misses that fuel the Lakers open court game and get them transition chances where easy baskets are had.
Further, when Jokic is in the game without Murray, I think the Lakers can play more zone — especially when Dwight is not in the game. While I do not think the zone is a full time solution and do believe Jokic in the middle of the floor vs. a Lakers zone will be trouble if overused, there are aspects of this approach I think can work well.
Remember, Jokic is such a unique player because he often plays from the top of the key and the elbow where his passing can be leveraged most. Having your guards up there defending him in places where he’s less likely to dictate the terms of the possession via a post up while also having your big players in pre-set help positions in a zone defense, gives you better opportunities to disrupt the Nuggets flow.
In the bigger picture, neither heavy traps nor exclusive zone by the Lakers will work over long stretches. Denver is too good an offense, is too well coached, and is too good a passing team overall. But, if you can switch up the looks and steal back control of five to 10 of their offensive possessions that you weren’t getting in the previous games, it can lead to more stops that create, again, transition and early offense chances.
On the offensive side, in the halfcourt, I want the Lakers to continue to drive the ball, but I also want them to actively look for their cutters more rather than only using them as space creators for a drive or a shot by the ball handler. This includes the big man lurking in the dunker’s spot and on duck-ins at the front of the rim. These passes are open more than they’re being made and there’s points to be scored on them.
Additionally, I’d love to see LeBron post up more than he has, not only via backdowns and out of the triple-threat from the mid-wing area, but on weakside duck-ins like he did vs. the Rockets. Grant and Craig have more height than Houston’s defenders, but both can be overpowered when Bron has the angle for a duck-in. These types of plays could also lead to LeBron drawing more fouls and earning the trips to the foul line the Lakers want to see more of.
The Lakers need to find more ways to get shots in the paint than what they’re getting. And while it’s easy to say “keep driving” there are other ways to get into the restricted area and I’d like to see those explored more.
While every playoff game is important and you want to win them all, game 4 of a 2-1 series really is the pivot point and a crucial contest for each team. The difference between a 3-1 lead and a 2-2 tie is massive. The Lakers have the ability to seize control of this series with both hands and while we can all highlight what the Nuggets have done from that position earlier these playoffs, I can guarantee you they don’t want to be put in that spot vs. the Lakers and needing to win every remaining game in the series to advance to the Finals. That’s a different type of weight to carry.
So, yes, they all matter. But this one matters more. Go get it, Lakers. Play hard, play smart, make some adjustments that are there to be had.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TNT.