The terms of this series, are pretty well established and set. The Lakers and Nuggets have traded blows in the middle of the ring all series, playing to their relative strengths and trying to impose them on each other.
In this NBA bout as boxing match, the Nuggets are the tactician who thrives as both aggressor1Jamal Murray’s assertiveness as a scorer and shot-maker has been outstanding. and counter-puncher2Jokic and all his worldly feel as a passer and scorer has put the Lakers defense on its heels. while the Lakers are the pure aggressive hunter, looking for the opening to to get inside the defense and land the types of body blows that set up the knockout punch to the head. As we told you early in this series, styles make fights and back and forth nature of both teams trying to exert their style on the other has made for some highly competitive and entertaining games.
As we enter game 5, then, there’s not much to learn and even fewer adjustments to be made. The winner will almost surely be determined by who plays harder, who makes more shots, and who can do the things on the margins best that pull the game more in their own direction in order to influence the style of the game. It sounds simple, I know, but we’re now passed the feeling out point of the series; the goals of each team are pretty clear.
If Murray and Jokic score at a high level and force the Lakers into putting more defenders on the ball, the Nuggets role players will have more space to play and easier chances to score as the ball moves onto them via smart passes by those lead playmakers. This can lead to Denver controlling the tempo of the game offensively, which translates to them to getting their defense set in the half court and influencing the Lakers offensive attack more to the perimeter.
If the Lakers, however, can control the game physically by working the offensive glass3And controlling the rebound battle overall. while creating the types of live ball turnovers and misses that fuel their open court game and allow them to get the easy baskets they feast on. This will also allow them to speed up the game, which raises their energy level overall and pushes them towards a more aggressive and pressure defensive team. The Lakers will also need to make some jumpers in the halfcourt as this is the only way to effectively get the Nuggets to unpack the paint and generate the driving angles that help them get those coveted points in the paint when a transition opportunity is not there.
Beyond these big picture ideas, there are a few specifics I’ll be watching for closely as they are the types of things that can elevate each side’s success rates in ways that put them clearly in control. In no particular order:
- Will LeBron make his jumper and, maybe more importantly, will he decide that taking a jumper is a win for him rather than a win for the defense? I talked about this a lot on the last LFR Pod, so I won’t get into the weeds of the idea too much here. But, it’s worth saying again that Bron’s super-computer brain is clearly looking at his halfcourt offensive possessions in a way that is impacting his want to take the open jumpshots the Nuggets are giving him. He must flip the idea in his mind that this is a good shot for him and, thus, for the Lakers. He must decide that he’s going to not only make the defense pay for doing this, but that it’s his idea in the first place to let this shot fly. On the pod I compared it to an employee telling their boss who is about to fire them “you can’t fire me, I quit!”, so let it fly Bron. Because if you knock some of these down, the layups and dunks will follow.
- Will Murray start to miss shots and can the Lakers influence this in any way? I do not expect LeBron to defend Murray the entire game, that’s just not a sustainable approach considering the load he must carry offensively. So, it’s up to KCP, Danny Green, Caruso, and Rondo to make his life just a bit harder. I’m honestly not sure they’re capable, but changing up a bit against him could help. Maybe duck under a screen every now and then. Maybe the Lakers can try to trap him more in a P&R or influence which way he drives when a screen is coming. I’m not saying any of these things will work as an isolated attempt, but in the aggregate as a varied approach of overall defense, there’s potential to disrupt him some. I will say, though, that if Murray doesn’t hit shots at an all-world level, Denver’s offense takes a hit. And the Lakers could use that type of dip in order to get this win.
- Who on the Lakers can make shots? KCP has been wonderful and I’d love for him to keep it up. What I’d love even more, though, is for Danny Green and/or Kyle Kuzma to join him. Neither have had a really good game yet this series. Having one in a closeout game 5 would be huge.
- How mobile is Anthony Davis and how effective can he be offensively if he’s not 100% physically? AD is questionable coming into game 5 with his sprained ankle, but is expected to play. He carried the Lakers offense early on in game 4 and that level of shotmaking may be needed again tonight. His ability to play to that level, however, becomes much harder if he doesn’t have his normal bounce, lift, or quickness. I’ll be watching this close.
- Will the Nuggets get a reliable 3rd scorer? Jerami Grant was great in game 3 and good in game 4. Can he be great again? Can Gary Harris be good? What about Torey Craig? Monte Morris has been steady and has made some really good plays. MPJ is a wildcard who can score, but has not defended well enough to earn longer shifts — will that change? Denver needs its role players to go up a level to win this game. Playing hard will be a given, but provding production is the key. The Lakers need to mark these guys well because if they make shots it can be trouble.
There’s other stuff to watch for too (how effective Rondo is, whether Dwight can maintain his level of play, etc, etc), but I’ll leave you with this: Closing out any team is incredibly hard. Closing out the Nuggets these playoffs has proven impossible to the two teams who had, collectively, 6 chances to do so and failed each time. The Lakers are in for a battle this game and they’ll need to bring even more energy and focus and resiliency to game 5 than they did to game 4.
A trip to the NBA Finals is on the line. Go get it.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TNT.