Western Conference Finals Game 1 Recap
The Western Conference Finals opened up with the one-seeded Lakers defeating the three-seeded Nuggets 116-104.
This was the Lakers and Nuggets first playoff matchup since 2012 and first Western Conference matchup since 2009. After back to back rounds of slow (0-1) starts from the Los Angeles Lakers so far, they entered this game with a clear sense of urgency all around.
The Denver Nuggets, who became the only team to ever come back from two 3-1 deficits in a postseason after defeating the Clippers, once again enter the series as heavy underdogs.
The Lakers, who’ve been resting for a week now, have been championship favorites all season along with the Clippers who failed to meet them in the Conference Final dance. With the latter out, the Lakers are in full control to win this championship led by their star studded superstar duo of Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The Nuggets came out strong in the first quarter, with Nikola Jokic being extremely aggressive scoring 11 points early.
The Nuggets’ clear problem heading into the series start with Anthony Davis, and the lack of somebody to be able to guard him one on one. Mason Plumlee isn’t bad, but he comes off the bench and takes a lot away from their offense in comparison to Jokic. In addition, Jokic is too slow laterally and a below average rim protector. As for LeBron James, the Nuggets will likely give him the Kawhi Leonard treatment with Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, and Gary Harris on him for multiple stints. You’ll also see some of Paul Millsap guarding him. In pick and rolls against him, they’re going to go over the screen and the big man will drop, anticipating the drive, forcing him to make the cross court pass to the open shooter as they did with Leonard, however LeBron is one of the best players in NBA history completing the cross-court pass.
In the second quarter, the game completely got away from Denver. The Lakers attacked the paint with assertiveness constantly. Due to this, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray got frustrated and in early foul trouble. This helped the Lakers early on, as both of the Nuggets’ primary playmakers/scorers had to sit out long portions of the first half and therefore never truly caught a rhythm. Dwight Howard, who missed every game of the Rockets series following game one, was able to agitate Jokic and multiple Nuggets players and get them into committing cheap fouls. Laker Coach Frank Vogel has done a phenomenal job of adjusting to his opposition in these Playoffs. Due to the Rockets’ lack of size and perimeter based offense, Vogel removed Howard from the rotation and played Anthony Davis at Center most games in their last series. It worked like a charm, as the Lakers went undefeated for the rest of the series since the change. With Denver in foul trouble in the second quarter, the Nuggets were forced to play a lineup that they never were forced to play against the Clippers. That was a lineup of both Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic on the bench. The Lakers took over and led 70-59 at the half.
In the second half, Los Angeles would soon start to pull away and never look back. Rajon Rondo was deemed questionable with back spasms going into this first matchup but thankfully he was cleared to play. “Playoff Rondo” was fantastic this game. He only played 22 minutes but was extremely effective, contributing 9 assists and scoring 7 points as well. He sank an open corner three pointer and also hit a beautiful floater driving baseline over the backboard with the shot clock expiring. If he can keep up these amazing playoff performances I think any team the Lakers face will have an extremely hard time beating them. Another very efficient player last night was Markieff Morris. He has provided a huge boost for the Lakers offensively these playoffs. He shot 3-4 from deep as well, chipping in 9 points in 16 minutes. If he can keep shooting like he’s been, the Lakers should have no trouble spreading the floor. Last but not least, Anthony Davis was the clear cut best player on the floor last night despite how well LeBron played (15 points on 55% shooting and 12 assists). AD was everywhere. He ended up with 37 points on 57% shooting from the field. He protected the paint, he defended the perimeter, caught some nice lobs, hit some amazing shots, and even had a LeBron-esque full court pass to KCP for an assist. His step-back jumper is virtually unguardable when he’s in the zone.
On the other side, the Nuggets have to be a whole lot better if they want to beat this team. They can’t afford for Nikola Jokic to get in foul trouble in game two. Both he and Murray played under 30 minutes in game one and that’s never going to get the job done for them in the playoffs. Despite the fact that they got some really unfortunate calls in the second quarter, they have to be smarter in game two. They picked up a plethora of unnecessary offensive fouls, as well as careless turnovers. Not to mention, no other starter outside of the limited Murray and Jokic shot above 40 percent. The whole team needs to be better and control what they can control. They may have to consider doubling Anthony Davis, but with Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shooting so well for the Lakers, it could be a long series for Denver. Or should I say a short one.
I think the Lakers will need to continue their aggressive play from tip off in order to be successful against this team because that can get key Nuggets players in foul trouble like they did this game. They also can’t ever get complacent and let the Nuggets get
easy shots. As long as they can find ways to keep Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic from getting hot, this series shouldn’t be too challenging.