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The overconfident Lakers’ furious fourth quarter rally ran out of gas and Jamal Murray’s clutch dagger three’s in the final 2:17 sealed a Game 3 win and saved the Denver Nuggets from going down 0–3 in the West Finals.
Nuggets’ players and fans may disagree with that assessment of where the Western Conference Finals stand but that’s what an objective comparison of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses and review of the game stats show. While the Nuggets deserve praise for hanging tough the last two games, the Lakers are still the better team with better superstars and a 2–1 lead in the series, despite how well Denver and their two superstars may have played.
All the Nuggets’ desperate win last night did was give them a brief reprieve to keep from going down 0–3. Tomorrow night, their backs are once again against the wall in another ‘must win’ game to keep from going down 1–3. Denver needs to win tomorrow night to keep this series alive because they know the odds of pulling off a third straight 1–3 comeback in these playoffs against a championship caliber Lakers team are close to impossible.
The cocky Lakers came into last night’s game with a 2–0 lead in the West Finals and the knowledge LeBron James is 17–0 when his team takes a 2–0 lead in a playoff series. Unfortunately, they forgot to bring their A-Game. The desperate Nuggets were the hungrier and more aggressive team, dominating the boards 53–34, winning the 3-point shootout by 15 points, making 9 more free throws, and building a 20-point fourth quarter lead.
With 10:24 left in the game, the Lakers came roaring back behind Rondo’s defense and LeBron’s offense and, in a stunning 4 minute 17 second burst, slashed the Nuggets’ 20-point lead to 3 points with 6:07 left on the clock. The game seesawed back and forth until, with just 2:17 left on the clock, Jamal Murray hit a dagger three to put the Nuggets up by 7 and then, with 53.3 seconds left, a second dagger three from 29 feet to seal the win.
Murray’s heroics, like Davis’ the game before, were the difference between winning and losing and the series now stands 2–1 in favor of the Lakers. The Nuggets can wish it were 2–1 in their favor but it could easily be 0–3. They dodged a bullet just like the Lakers did when Davis hit that game winning three. Bottom line, their backs are against the wall again tomorrow night when they must win or once again fall into that familiar 1–3 hole.
The problem the Nuggets face is the Lakers are unlikely to come out flat tomorrow night. The Lakers now know the Nuggets are capable of beating them and are going to come out treating the matchup like a close-out game. The Lakers know they let last night’s game get out of control and rallied too late. LeBron’s on a crusade to win his fourth NBA championship and AD’s going to be hungry to redeem his lackluster performance in Game 3.
The Lakers are going to come out looking to dominate the Nuggets early and coast to a wire-to-wire win. Here are the five reasons why the Lakers will win Game 4 and put the Denver Nuggets on the brink of elimination:
1. Playoff LeBron Will Emerge.
To be honest, the Lakers haven’t needed Playoff LeBron this postseason. However, last night’s loss and insinuations age and mileage are finally catching up with him are exactly what Lebron thrives on for motivation. James has only played 34.4 minutes per game in these playoffs, averaging just 25.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 8.8 assists. In the 2018 playoffs, he played 41.9 minutes and averaged 34.0 points, 9.1 boards, and 9.0 assists.
The Lakers are now in the stretch run. With two wins to the Finals and six wins to the championship, it’s time for Playoff LeBron to take over. Look for LeBron to play 40 minutes with a monster triple double in a Game 4 win.
2. Anthony Davis Will Redeem Himself.
While he had 27 points on 9–17 from the field and 9–10 from the line, AD had a disappointing Game 3, especially after his clutch game-winning buzzer-beating heroics to win Game 2. He has openly admitted as much. Davis was passive the entire game, only grabbed two rebounds, and was never a factor with the game on the line. He simply did not deliver a performance worthy of a top-five superstar and team’s second best player.
But Anthony will get an opportunity to redeem himself tomorrow night when the Lakers look to win Game 4, take a 3–1 series lead, and put Denver on the brink of elimination. AD needs to play 40 minutes and dominate.
3. Lakers Defense Will Dominate.
The Lakers had the third best defense during the regular season and have the fourth best defense in the playoffs. Their team identity is defense and they pride themselves on their ability to stop opposing teams’ superstars. They shut down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the first round of the playoffs and James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the second round. They’re confident they can do the same to Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
L.A. may have found the defensive key in the fourth quarter last night as their zone held Denver to just 21 points with a 77.8 defensive rating. Look for Frank Vogel to use that zone to crank up the pressure in Game 4.
4. Lakers Will Control the Boards.
The Lakers are the bigger and better rebounding team, 9th in the regular season with 45.7 rebounds per game versus the Nuggets 20th with 44.1. In the playoffs, LA is 7th with 44.0 boards and Denver 13th with 41.4 boards. In the two games they won, the Lakers outrebounded the Nuggets 39 to 34. In the one game they lost, however, the Nuggets dominated the boards 53–34, which is why they were able to build a 20-point lead in the fourth.
One of the Lakers’ strengths as a team is their edge in size and athleticism, which usually translates into winning the rebounding battle. The Lakers will come out and impose their domination on the glass tomorrow night.
5. The Lakers Will Make their Threes.
When opposing teams pack the paint and dare the Lakers to shoot from deep, they need to make their threes to win. In the two games the Lakers won, they shot 38.7% from deep. In last night’s loss, they only shot 23.1%. In the ten playoff games the Lakers won, they shot 39.2% from deep. In the three games they lost, they only shot 22.9%. For the series, the Lakers have shot 34.1% from deep, just a notch below their 35.5% playoff average.
One of the Lakers’ vulnerabilities is their average 3-point shooting, which is why opponents try to clog the lane and force the Lakers to shoot from deep. Fortunately, the numbers strongly suggest the Lakers will make their threes.
No disrespect to LeBron James, who valiantly took the mantle from Kobe Bryant and carried this team through the most difficult and unprecedented season in the history of the NBA, but Anthony Davis is the Lakers’ future.
When AD’s game-winning buzzer-beating dagger-three splashed through the net, it was like the world stopped, the team’s legacy clock reset, and the era where Anthony Davis takes over as Lakers top superstar officially began. Out of respect, the Lakers will still be known as LeBron’s team like they had been known as Shaq’s team but the cognoscenti will know the moment had come when the team’s future depended on AD like it once did with Kobe.
Great as LeBron James is, the Lakers will only go as far as Anthony Davis can carry them. We saw hints of this throughout this long disjointed season and its harsh reality during the second half of last night’s Nuggets’ game. There will be games LeBron can still dominate just like there were with Shaq but the time has finally arrived when LeBron and the Lakers need to look to AD to close games like Shaq and the Lakers needed to look to Kobe.
While LeBron James is still the King and MVP of the regular season, it will likely be the ascent of Anthony Davis to Finals MVP and best player in the league that wins the Los Angeles Lakers their 17th NBA championship. That’s what this season, the Klutch Sports driven trade for AD, LeBron’s taking the baton from Kobe, and James’ respect and deference to empower Davis has all been about: winning championships and building a legacy.
This has been an unbelievably tough season for the Lakers with obstacles like the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, the five-month coronavirus layoff, and losing home court advantage to the bubble repeatedly blocking their way. But the basketball gods may finally be smiling on the Lakers as the bubble playoffs have eliminated the Bucks and Clippers, their main competitors, and cleared the road for Los Angeles to win its 17th NBA championship.
No disrespect to the Nuggets, Heat,or Celtics but this season is the Lakers’ best opportunity to win a championship with the Bucks and Clippers gone and the healthy Warriors and the new look Nets back in the mix next year. Who knows how long LeBron James can continue to cheat Father Time, what blockbuster moves franchises may make to create new superteams, or how long the coronavirus pandemic will devalue home court advantage.
When LeBron James joined the Lakers in free agency two summers ago, critics said he did it for family reasons. In retrospect, the decision was a calculated move to enhance his legacy and chances to become the GOAT. LeBron could play four more seasons after this, retire at 40-years old after his sixth season and maybe fourth championship as a Laker, and trump Michael Jordan as the GOAT with seven NBA championship rings.
No NBA superstar has ever had the career savvy and vision of LeBron to understand how combining his star power, the Lakers’ legacy, and AD’s talents could give him his best chance to surpass MJ to become the GOAT. That’s why he has deferred to AD and is willing to give him the opportunity to become Finals MVP and best player on the planet and even take a pay cut on his last contract with the Lakers. It’s all part of his master plan to win.
That clutch step-back dagger three at the buzzer by Anthony Davis not only positioned the team six games away from their 17th championship but also gave the rest of the NBA formal notice the Anthony Davis era had begun.
As we get ready to for Game 2 in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, one of the big questions to consider is who has been the Lakers’ third most valuable player so far in the NBA bubble playoffs?
After staying with essentially the same starting lineup most of the season, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel has made several major adjustments both to the starting lineups as well as his rotations since we started the playoffs. Before the playoffs, the talk was about the Lakers needing Kyle Kuzma to step up and be the team’s third star to be win a championship but now other players like Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard have started to emerge.
It’s easy to say the Lakers’ third star is the open man or their elite defense but history tells us the team is more likely to need a key role player to emerge as the third most valuable player to win the NBA championship. Will that be a current starter like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Danny Green or a key reserve like Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, or Dwight Howard. At the halfway point, we’re starting to see who could be legitimate candidates.
To help you analyze those candidates, let’s look at how individual Lakers ranked according to the following key playoff player stats per NBA.com:
Net Rating, Plus/Minus, Points, Assists, Rebounds, Blocks, and Steals.
Net Rating Per Game
One of the key stats used to compare a player’s overall performance is Net Rating because it measures the difference between the player’s offensive and defensive rating. Danny Green’s net rating is best on the team and tops LeBron James and Anthony Davis, which makes him a serious candidate.
Plus/Minus Per Game
Plus/Minus is another stat analysts like to use to compare players as it measures how the team does when a player is on the floor and includes intangibles such as fit, chemistry, and things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Danny Green’s third best plus/minus adds to his candidacy.
Points Per Game
There’s a case to be made that points per game is the best stat by which to measure who is the Lakers’ third most valuable playoff player. The Lakers do need a third consistent scorer to complement LeBron and AD. Kyle Kuzma being the team’s third best scorer makes him a top candidate.
Assists Per Game
Next to scoring, a second playmaker to play alongside and free up LeBron James from being the Lakers’ only facilitator and to run the offense when he rests is always near the top of the list of Lakers’ needs. Rajon Rondo’s elite playmaking, though only in three games, catapults him into contention.
Rebounds Per Game
As expected, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the Lakers’ best two rebounders. Controlling the boards has always been a critical factor both aton the defensive and offensive glass for teams to win in the playoffs. Dwight Howard’s elite rebounding makes him a legitimate candidate.
Blocks Per Game
There’s truth in the axiom ‘defense wins championships’ and Frank Vogel’s defensive philosophy has always been defense starts inside-out with rim protection. The surprise is Dwight Howard not making the list but JaVale McGee should be added as a candidate because of his shot blocking.
Steals Per Game
Steals are often an underappreciated defensive stat but impact the team’s offense because they often lead to easy transition points on the offensive end. Rajon Rondo’s 2 steals per game in limited games and minutes should add to his candidacy as the Laker’s third most valuable playoff player.
Summary of Rankings
Here’s a recap of where each Lakers player finished as far as the playoff top five rankings for the seven statistical categories discussed above:
Obviously, the Lakers’ third most valuable playoff player should contribute in multiple areas like LeBron James and Anthony Davis have done. Per that criteria, the leading candidates so far are Rajon Rondo and Danny Green. We’re slightly past what hopefully is the halfway point in the Lakers’ quest to win the championship, so a lot can change as competition and pressure ramps up as we finish the Conference Finals and then the NBA Finals.
We’ll continue to track who’s performing as the team’s third most valuable player as the Lakers pursue the franchise’s 17th NBA championship and follow up at the end of the playoffs with a final article and award.
Gerald is back with Rafael Barlowe from NBA Draft Junkies as they recap Game Three of the Heat-Celtics.
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It was Playoff LeBron, Playoff AD, Playoff Rondo, and Playoff Dwight. The Lakers’ Four Playoff Superstars could have been the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse far as the helpless and hapless Denver Nuggets were concerned.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was a masterpiece of playoff basketball orchestrated by a quartet of Lakers’ superstars, including two of the greatest playmaker-big man tandems from the NBA present and past. Representing the present were the 2020 First Team All-NBA playmaker and center duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Representing the past were future HOF point guard and center Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard.
Together, the Lakers’ Four Horsemen gave the upstart Nuggets a dose of reality, breaking the game open early in the second quarter with a 17–1 run and then finishing them off with an 11–2 burst early in the third quarter. Those two runs were triggered by the Lakers’ elite defense, which totally shut down Nuggets’ superstars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and held Denver to just 21 points in the second and 20 points in the third quarters.
The LeBron James and Anthony Davis starting superduo combined for 52 points, 16 rebounds, and 16 assists while the Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard backup superduo contributed 24 points, 4 boards, and 9 dimes. With first half foul trouble and the game decided early, the Nuggets’ superstar duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray only played 25 and 29 minutes and were held to a combined 42 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists
The Lakers as a team recorded 33 assists compared to 23 for the Nuggets. The Playoff LeBron and Playoff Rondo playmaker tandem contributed 21 of those assists, having a hand in 74 of the 126 total points the Lakers scored. Meanwhile, the Playoff AD and Playoff Dwight center duo posted 50 points and 13 rebounds, clearly outplaying the Denver center tandem of Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee, who had just 30 points and 10 rebounds.
The total domination by the Lakers’ Four Horsemen is reflected in their individual plus/minus ratings. LeBron James and Anthony Davis both posted +15 ratings while Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard recorded +13 and +14. Since they led by as many as 27 points late in the third quarter, the Lakers were able to rest their stars in the fourth quarter. James only played 31 minutes, Davis only 33 , Rondo only 22 , and Howard only 16 minutes.
Game winning play like the Lakers showcased in the second and third quarters to put Game 1 away demand contributions from more than the superstars and the Lakers got great performances from their role players. Caldwell-Pope chipped in 18 points on 6–10 shooting and 3–5 threes, Kuzma added 11 points on 5–8 shooting and 1–2 threes, Morris 9 points on 3–4 from deep and elite defense, and Green 8 points and stellar defense.
While it’s just one game and the never-say-die Nuggets have proven their resilience by coming back twice in these playoffs from 1–3 deficits, these Lakers are clearly not the overachieving Thunder or choke prone Clippers. The Lakers are not only hitting on all cylinders and peaking at the right time, they’re also led by four sure-fire future HOF players who are on a quest seeking a championship and redemption in the eyes of their critics.
LeBron James is ‘pissed’ he only received 16 of 101 votes for the 2020 MVP award given yesterday to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Anthony Davis is out to prove that he and not Antetokounmpo deserved the 2020 DPOY Award. Rajon Rondo has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove Playoff Rondo still lives. And Dwight Howard wants to erase three DNP’s and the bad taste of being a dysfunctional teammate and win his first NBA championship.
The Lakers have their sight clearly focused on winning the franchise’s 17th NBA championship and are now just 7 games away from reaching that goal and proving to the haters and doubters they’re the best team in world. They’re not going to take their foot off the gas or the throats of the Denver Nuggets. With the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers no longer in the way, the Lakers can see the finish line and sense the championship.
Head coach Frank Vogel and his coaching staff have done a masterful job managing their roster, rotations, and game plans. Now the Lakers’ Four Horsemen can smell the barn and clearly see the championship finish line.
9 Games down and 7 to go to win their 17th championship and redemption.
The Western Conference Finals between the Nuggets and Lakers that starts tomorrow is rightly billed as an epic battle between the best offensive center in the league in Nikola Jokic and best defensive center in Anthony Davis.
However, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel has made comments hinting he may opt to go big and have traditional centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard guard Jokic rather than All-NBA first team center Anthony Davis. While we won’t know until play starts whether Vogel just wants to keep his centers engaged and bolster team chemistry or whether he really intends to revert to big lineups, playing McGee or Howard on Jokic could be a mistake.
Let’s start by looking at the stats to see how McGee, Howard, and Davis fared playing center against Nikola Jokic in the four regular season games between the two teams this season, three of which were won by the Lakers. In the 150 minutes Davis was on the floor, the Lakers outscored the Nuggets by 34 points in his 56 minutes at center, broke even in Howard’s 42 minutes at center, and were outscored by 18 points in McGee’s 52 minutes at center.
Digging deeper, the individual defensive ratings of the Lakers’ three centers against the Nuggets in those four regular season games tell the same story. Davis posted a defensive rating of 110.5, Mcgee 121.1, and Howard 126.5. The stats confirm the obvious conclusion of most NBA pundits. First team All-NBA and All-Defensive center Anthony Davis is without question the Los Angeles Lakers’ best option to defend Denver Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic.
So what’s behind Vogel’s comments about playing McGee and Howard? Neither is a good matchup against Nikola Jokic, especially behind the 3-point line, and backup Mason Plumlee only plays 10 minutes per game. While Davis will guard Jokic most of the time, the Lakers may be going big so they can throw multiple defenders at Jokic to bully and wear him down physically since he’s already played over 500 minutes in the playoffs.
The Lakers’ formula of starting games big and finishing them small has been integral to their success and was able to hold Nikola Jokic to just 16 points per game in the four regular season games with Denver this season. The fact their only loss to the Nuggets came in the one game LeBron James didn’t play also gives them confidence they can win playing their normal rotations or go small with Anthony Davis at the five if that doesn’t work.
That they can win playing big or small has been a major source of pride for the Lakers all season long so Vogel’s not taking a huge risk by gambling they can beat the Nuggets by going big since he has small ball in his back pocket. The Lakers are so talented with two first team All-NBA superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis that at worst Vogel’s likely only risking losing Game 1, which they’ve already shown they’re capable of easily overcoming.
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why the Lakers’ most potent lineup both defensively and offensively is their version of small ball with AD at the five, Morris the four, LeBron the three, Green the two, and KCP the one. That lineup has defensive speed, quickness, and athleticism to double the ball and rotate to contest shots from deep and at the rim while offensively spreading the floor and unpacking the paint to unleash LeBron and AD.
The Lakers were able to roll through the first two rounds of the playoffs by doubling and shutting down Blazers’ Damian Lillard and Rockets’ James Harden, who were the primary offensive engines of their respective teams. The Lakers’ challenge playing the Nuggets is Denver has two offensive engines in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray whose high pick-and-rolls makes it nearly impossible for teams to double Murray because of Jokic’s passing.
The Nuggets destroyed the Clippers with those pick-and-rolls with Murray getting the ball to Jokic on a short roll and Jokic using the 4 on 3 advantage to hit cutters for easy layups and dunks or shooters for wide open threes. Deciding not to double or trap Murray could be part of the reason Frank Vogel wants to go big with both Davis and McGee or Howard protecting the rim and Lakers’ defenders staying at home with Nuggets 3-point shooters.
It will be interesting to see what other adjustments coach Vogel makes to shut down Murray and Jokic and the Nuggets’ offense. While the Bucks and the Clippers have stumbled, the Lakers are peaking at just the right time. The Lakers know Denver doesn’t have anybody who’s going to be able to stop LeBron James and Anthony Davis offensively so they’re confident slowing down Murray and Jokic defensively is the smart way to win.
The Nuggets deserve credit for what’s been a sensational playoffs but the well rested Lakers are not the overachieving Thunder or the choke prone Clippers so the Cinderella story is going to end. The Lakers in five games!
MVP superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has a career defining decision to make after the Milwaukee Bucks’ disappointing five-game second-round loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals six days ago.
As much as the Bucks would love to control the situation, Giannis has the power to control his destiny like Anthony Davis did last offseason when he forced the New Orleans Pelicans to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Does Giannis stay in Milwaukee and trust the Bucks to acquire another superstar to make the team a legitimate championship contender or exert the power of his looming free agency like AD and chose his future home?
Here’s a quick look at the four options Giannis Antetokounmpo has:
1. Giannis Signs Supermax Contract with the Bucks.
There are good reasons why Giannis might actually prefer this as his best option. To start with, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s devastated the economy and transformed the future of the NBA from rosy to uncertain. There’s a case to be made the smart move would be for Giannis to take advantage of the mega dollars on the table and lock in generational wealth and security for his family. After all, who knows what the future holds?
Then there’s Giannis’ team first personality and professed love for the city of Milwaukee. It’s easy to imagine him deciding to sign the supermax contract offered by the Bucks and trusting them to do what they need to improve.
2. Giannis Declines to Sign Supermax with the Bucks.
This is probably the easiest and most likely option for Giannis to choose, basically remaining committed to the Milwaukee Bucks but smartly kicking any signing of the supermax contract down the road until next offseason. This option keeps Antetokounmpo’s options open while putting intense pressure on the Bucks to make substantive changes to upgrade the roster for next season, which could be a challenge considering their situation.
While the most reasonable path for Giannis right now, this option would ratchet up the pressure on the Bucks to make major moves to upgrade the team and transform them into a legitimate championship contender.
3. The Bucks Trade Giannis to Team of Their Choice.
One thing the Bucks cannot afford to do is lose Giannis Antetokounmpo to free agency with nothing in return so if he declines to sign a supermax contract, Milwaukee might be wise to quietly investigate the trade market. The offers the Bucks could receive for Giannis now with a year left on his contract would certainly be better than any possible sign-and-trade deal he’d have to approve a year from now or the risk of losing him for nothing.
While the Bucks don’t want to part ways with Antetokounmpo, they may have no choice because their current roster and financial constraints may make it impossible for them to upgrade the team. May be time to cash in.
4. Giannis Demands Trade to Team(s) of His Choice
What the Bucks don’t want to happen is for Giannis to decide to follow the route Anthony Davis took and demand to be traded to a specific team or list of teams because that could diminish what Milwaukee receives in return. Just the threat of Antetokounmpo doing this could be enough to make the Bucks seek to trade him this offseason, especially if getting him to sign the supermax deal seems like long shot and options to upgrade the roster dim.
This is the option the Los Angeles Lakers are hoping will become the path for Giannis joining LeBron and AD to form a new superteam dynasty whose championship window would extend well beyond James’ retirement.
Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo have started the process by meeting to discuss the future and how to improve the team. The showdown will come when the Bucks formally present Giannis with the actual supermax offer. Should Giannis lose faith in Milwaukee’s ability to upgrade the team and decline to sign, the Bucks probably can’t afford to take the risk of waiting until the following offseason and would be smart to look to trade him now.
The problem with the Lakers planned pursuit of Giannis is the only way they could acquire him would be through free agency a year from now as they don’t have the trading chips to even make a viable sign-and-trade deal. Joining the Lakers could only happen if Giannis committed to signing with the Lakers as a free agent next year and declared he wouldn’t re-sign with any team to whom he was traded, which is an unlikely long shot at best.
Frankly, Giannis signing the supermax deal with the Bucks would be good news for the Lakers in my opinion. I prefer seeing him stay in Milwaukee than creating a superteam somewhere else to compete with the Lakers. Further, I also dislike the idea of the Lakers wasting the coming offseason saving cap space to sign Giannis in free agency a year from now. Smacks too much of the lost opportunities of waiting for Kawhi Leonard last offseason.
I also don’t see Giannis as the kind of player who would want to follow the Kevin Durant’s lead and join a team like the Miami Heat who just beat him. He strikes me as the kind of loyal player who wants to stay in Milwaukee.
Fresh off their Cinderella semifinals 1–3 comeback against the Clippers, it’s Jamal and the Joker and the Denver Nuggets versus the King and the Brow and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in the Bubble.
Can the underdog Nuggets continue their playoff heroics against a heavily favored powerhouse Lakers team with the second-ranked offensive rating, third-ranked defensive rating, and top-ranked net rating in the playoffs? What are the chances 23-year old Jamal Murray and 25-year old Nikola Jokic can lead the Nuggets to a third straight playoff series upset over 33-year old LeBron James and 27-year old Anthony Davis and the Lakers?
The answer is slim and none. The Lakers will end Denver’s fairy tale story and burst the Cinderella Nuggets’ bubble like the Blazers and Rockets in five games with the odds of the series going six about the same as a sweep. Great as the Nuggets have played, the rested Lakers have the superior stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the defensive weapons to stop Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, and the team chemistry the Clippers lacked.
No disrespect but the Lakers are not the overachieving Thunder or choke prone Clippers. Defensively, the Lakers have the speed and quickness to chase 3-point shooters off the line and the shot blockers to protect the rim. Offensively, they have two superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, whom the Nuggets have no answer to defend, and a deep and talented veteran roster that’s not going to crumble and fold like the Clippers.
While Los Angeles and Denver both elevated their games in the playoffs, the Lakers won three of the four regular season games the teams played, only losing to the Nuggets in the one game where LeBron James did not play. Because their one win over the Lakers was a 128–104 blowout, the Nuggets ended up with the +3.2 net rating and a +2.0 plus/minus against the Lakers for the regular season despite losing three out of four games played.
The teams’ performances in the bubble in the playoffs are more telling. The Lakers have an 8–2 record with a second-ranked 114.4 offensive rating, a third-ranked 105.4 defensive rating, and a top-ranked 9.0 net rating. Because of their two seven-game comeback series, the Nuggets have an unremarkable 8–6 record with a fifth-ranked 112.5 offensive rating, an eleventh-ranked 114.0 defensive rating, and a ninth-ranked -1.5 net rating.
Therein lies the Nuggets’ challenge. While their fifth-ranked offense might be able to score on the Lakers third-ranked defense, their eleventh-ranked defense will struggle mightily to stop the Lakers second-ranked offense? The odds the Lakers will somehow choke like the overachieving Thunder or overrated Clippers is not likely with LeBron James smelling the roses and GOAT and sensing an opportunity to win his fourth NBA championship.
With six days rest and three days to prepare, Frank Vogel and the Los Angeles Lakers should be locked and loaded for the Denver Nuggets and determined to avoid a Game 1 loss in the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers will have multiple options to upgrade their roster this offseason but one out-of-box move would be to resurrect the trade that never was and make a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder for point guard Chris Paul.
Rather than writing off the idea as crazy because CP3 is over the hill, his contract an albatross, and his style of play a poor fit with LeBron and AD, the Lakers should view the situation as an opportunity to steal a superstar. If Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, and JaVale McGee decline their player options, the Lakers would have the assets in the form of expiring contracts to pull off a trade with OKC for Chris Paul.
If the Lakers can’t pull off a trade for a young stud guard like Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, Fred VanVleet, or Zach LaVine or sign a free agent like Goran Dragic with their MLE, then trading for CP3 could be an attractive option. While he’s 35-years old and owed $85 million over the next 2 years, Chris has shown in these playoffs, like LeBron, that he still has the court savvy and playing style to continue to perform at an elite level into his late 30’s.
Here are three reasons why the Lakers would be smart to trade for CP3:
1. He’s Exactly What They Need.
Chris Paul is exactly what the Los Angeles Lakers need right now to make life easier and complement LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He fills their immediate need for a dependable third scorer and elite second playmaker. Like LeBron at 35, CP3’s performing at a HOF level averaging 17.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in 31.5 minutes per game, comparable to his career 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 9.5 assists in 34.9 minutes per game.
Paul also plays a style that relies more on skill and craftiness than speed, quickness, and athleticism, which means there’s an excellent chance he will continue to play at a high level for the remaining two years on his contract. Watching how Playoff Rondo has impacted the Lakers in their series against the Rockets serves as a perfect example of what Chris Paul could bring to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers if they traded for him.
Like Rondo, Chris Paul has the full trust and unreserved respect of LeBron James, is exactly what the Lakers need to balance their roster, and could be the key to optimizing the last two years of the King’s championship window.
2. He Could Actually Be Available.
With the coronavirus pandemic looming and Billy Donovan leaving, it’s time for the Oklahoma City Thunder to start rebuilding and take advantage of the treasure chest of draft picks Sam Presti has smartly accumulated. They have a pair of talented young guards in Gilgeous-Alexander and Dort and several high salaried veterans ready to leave via free agency. All they need is to find a way to jettison Chris Paul’s 2-year $85 million contract.
Which is where the Los Angeles Lakers come into the picture, buoyed by their megadollar local TV contract, insatiable thirst for championships, and willingness to take on the last two years of Chris Paul’s massive contract. While the Bucks and Knicks have been rumored to be interested in CP3, they aren’t logical trade partners. Trading for Paul wouldn’t make New York a playoff contender and Milwaukee lacks expendable expiring contracts.
That leaves the Lakers as the only team with the motivation and possible resources to realistically trade for Chris Paul. While CP3 may not be their top option, it’s possible he could end up being their best available option.
3. He’s Perfect Fit for LeBron James.
Besides being good friends, LeBron James and Chris Paul have dreamed of playing with each other and rued the opportunity they missed when David Stern voided the New Orleans Pelicans’ CP3 trade to the Lakers 8 years ago. Now grizzled 35-year old veterans, there’s a chance they could finally be teammates if the stars align and the Lakers have the assets and will to take on Chris’ $85 million contract and bring him aboard as their third superstar.
Any lingering questions of how Chris Paul would fit playing with LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been answered by Rajon Rondo’s recent sensational play and electrifying performance in the playoffs for the Lakers. He would give the Lakers the third superstar they’ve been searching for and an elite scorer and playmaker who can play who can run the offense and get the ball to Anthony Davis with or without LeBron James on the court.
Chris is basically a full-time full-year version of Playoff Rondo who’s a better shooter, playmaker, and defender who’d elevate the Lakers to superteam status and make them odds-on favorites to win two more championships.
Heading into the Western Conference Finals, Frank Vogel has to decide whether to start Markieff Morris, whose small ball style transformed the Lakers in the last two wins, or revert to previous starter JaVale McGee.
There are cases to be made for both starting lineups. The JaVale McGee starting lineup has played 89 minutes in the playoffs with a 127.1 offensive rating, a 105.5 defensive rating, and a 21.5 net rating and +39 plus/minus. Meanwhile, the Markieff Morris starting lineup has only played 30 minutes in the playoffs but has posted a 128.6 offensive rating, an unbelievable 73.3 defensive rating, and an impressive 54.9 net rating and +30 plus/minus.
For Frank Vogel, everything starts with defense. The Lakers’ core defensive strategy against the Blazers and Rockets was to identify what was the heart of the opponent’s offensive engine and then game plan to take that away. For the Blazers’ series, that meant doubling Damian Lillard and forcing other players to beat them. For the Rockets’ series, that meant doubling James Harden and betting they could handle the rest of Houston’s lineup.
While starting Morris excelled against the small ball Rockets, most analysts expect the Lakers to revert to starting McGee in the Western Conference Finals against either the Clippers or Nuggets since both start big 7′ centers. But since the two teams and centers play different styles of basketball, the Lakers will not only have to wait until Tuesday night to learn whom they’ll play but their starting lineup could be different depending on opponent.
That won’t stop Frank Vogel, or for that matter us, from reviewing both the Clippers’ and Nuggets’ lineups and game planning and strategizing how the Morris and McGee starting lineups might work against each opponent. Knowing Vogel’s calling card is defense, let’s start our by identifying what is the beating heart of the Clippers’ and Nuggets’ offensive engines and which of the Lakers’ starting lineups would be most effective in shutting it down.
1. Lakers’ Starting Lineup for Conference Finals Against the Clippers.
The heart of the Clippers’ offensive engine in my opinion is forward Kawhi Leonard’s unique ability to get to where he wants on the court, usually deep in the paint, and finish with an unstoppable high percentage jump shot. Preventing that will likely be the core of the game plan Frank Vogel deploys against the Clippers and will probably include double teaming Kawhi to force him to give up the ball and rotating aggressively as the ball moves.
With the Clippers loaded with other dangerous scorers like Paul George and Lou Williams, the Lakers should start the Markieff Morris lineup like they did against the Rockets to speed up their defensive rotations after doubling. Zubac is not a major offensive threat other than as a dunker or offensive rebounder and playing their oversized version of small ball will unleash Anthony Davis and LeBron James as shot blockers who can protect the rim.
Starting Morris should also benefit the Lakers on the offensive end as they could deploy 5-out sets and Markieff’s 3-point shooting to stretch the floor and counter Clipper attempts to pack the paint against LeBron and AD. Playing small could also force the Clippers to bench traditional center Ivica Zubac, who is a major factor for them defensively, and replace him with the smaller Montrezl Harrell, who always struggles to guard James or Davis.
Bottom line, the defensive and offensive adjustments Frank Vogel made when starting Morris for McGee against the Rockets are exactly what the Lakers need to deploy to slow down Kawhi Leonard and beat the Clippers.
2. Lakers’ Starting Lineup for Conference Finals Against the Nuggets.
The heart of the Nuggets’ offensive engine is mercurial center Nikola Jokic who’s been the driving force behind Denver’s comeback versus the Clippers and can dominate with his elite passing and inside and outside games. As great as Jamal Murray has played during Denver’s comebacks against the Jazz and Clippers, stop Jokic and you stop the Nuggets, who rely on his deft passing, crafty moves in the paint, and tendency to get hot from deep.
While Anthony Davis can defend Nikola Jokic one-on-one, the Lakers’ best option is probably to double him and get the ball out of his hands, The Nuggets are easier to defend as a team when he does not have the ball. Doubling demands the Lakers play their version of small ball with Morris starting rather than McGee to accelerate the speed and quickness of their rotations to run shooters off the 3-point line and cruise the passing lanes.
As with the Clippers, starting the Morris lineup should help the Lakers on the offensive side. If Jokic has a weakness, it’s his ability to defend in space. There is no way he’ll be able to defend Anthony Davis or Markieff Morris. The Nuggets are vulnerable to teams who play small or have stretch five centers because neither Jokic or Plumlee are comfortable defending on the perimeter, which is why they lost 5 of their last 8 games vs. Houston.
Should the Nuggets pull off a second comeback from being down 1–3, the Lakers should look to take advantage of their physical and mental state by playing their version of small ball with the Markieff Morris starting lineup.
In the end, it’s really not a surprise that the Lakers best starting lineup is the one with Anthony Davis at the five and Markieff Morris at the four. It’s the lineup that ultimately turbo-charges the Lakers at both ends of the court. The unexpected and gratifying surprise is coach Frank Vogel understanding and making the perfect strategic defensive and offensive adjustments to transform the Morris lineup into a juggernaut at both ends of the court.
The Lakers have now won two series and are just eight games away from winning the NBA championship. Whether they play the Clippers or the Nuggets, they need to start Markieff Morris and their version of small ball.
With Markieff Morris replacing JaVale McGee, the Lakers may have found the perfect version of small ball to unleash superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis and a new starting lineup to lead them to a championship.
While starting Morris was tactically done to better matchup with the small ball Houston Rockets, how the Lakers played on offense and defense with Markieff in the lineup could convince Vogel to make the move permanent. The speed and quickness Morris brought turbo-charged the Lakers’ defense and the his ability to spread the floor with 3-point shooting clearly opened up the paint and empowered LeBron and AD to attack the rim on offense.
Starting Morris instead of McGee makes the Lakers more versatile at both ends of the court with only a small sacrifice in terms of size since Markieff is still 6′ 8′ and 245 pounds and able to play and defend the center position. When you consider Anthony Davis is 6′ 10,” LeBron James 6′ 9,” Danny Green 6′ 6,” and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 6′ 5,” the Lakers’ lineup with Markieff Morris at the five is clearly not your prototype small ball lineup.
Frankly, ‘small ball’ is a total misnomer for the Lakers’ lineup with Morris instead of McGee because it’s not a ‘small’ lineup. It’s a ‘skilled’ lineup where all 5 players can handle, pass, and shoot the ball and play defense. It’s a versatile lineup that can easily match up with any style of play or opponent. It can play big or small, fast or slow, inside or outside, offense or defense, which makes it the ideal Lakers’ lineup to start or finish games.
While many believe Vogel inserted Morris into the starting lineup for his offense, the more likely reason Frank made the change was defense, which is why he may elect to continue starting him going forward in the playoffs. Defense has always been Vogel’s calling card and the heart of his decisions and the speed and quickness of the Lakers’ defensive rotations in the second half of Game 3 and first half of Game 4 were championship caliber.
That defensive velocity and intensity is something the Lakers can’t duplicate with JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard in the lineup. It could be the Lakers’ version of the ‘death lineup’ that fueled the Warriors’ three championships. That raises the possibility of Vogel opting to continue starting McGee and deploying the higher energy Morris lineup as at strategic points in games where the Lakers need stops like Kerr did with the Warriors death lineup.
Designed to accelerate the Lakers’ ability to rotate and run shooters off the 3-point line and cruise the passing lanes, the Lakers’ version of small ball was also elite at blocking shots with James and Davis protecting the rim. Whether Vogel decides to start Markieff Morris or emulate the Warriors and deploy the Lakers’ new version of small ball as a wild card coming off the bench to lock down games, he’s found a game-changing defensive weapon.
As important as the Morris lineup will be to the Lakers’ defense, don’t discount how his presence in the lineup impacts the Lakers’ offense and unleashes superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis to attack the rim. Vogel may start Markieff because of his ability to stretch the floor. He’s clearly a better 3-point shooter than Green, which is what makes the Lakers’ small ball version better offensively than the Warriors’ ‘death lineup.’
When you take into consideration the ability of the Lakers’ version of small ball to run 5-out sets to create more space and unclog the paint for LeBron and AD to attack the rim, it makes better sense for Vogel to start this lineup. The Lakers have struggled starting games and halves this season, often due to opponents packing the paint and forcing them to settle for jumpers instead of attacking the rim. Starting out going small could change that.
While defense certainly wins championships, you also need great offensive performances by your superstars, which is why unleashing the power of LeBron James and Anthony Davis is so important for the Lakers to triumph. The defensive strategy to beat the Lakers by the Clippers or whomever will clearly be to pack the paint to stop LeBron and AD from attacking. Playing 5-out with Markieff Morris and spreading the floor is the counter to that.
Great teams become great because of facing great challenges, which is why I’ve always been in favor of the Lakers having the Blazers, Rockets, and Clippers as their likely opponents on the road to their 17th championship. Facing two teams with loaded back courts and divergent styles like the Blazers and and Rockets has helped make the Lakers a better basketball team and may have given them the blueprint for winning a championship.
Everybody knows Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni, and the Houston Rockets went all-in on analytics-driven small ball with five players under 6′ 7″ with layups, free throws, and 3-point shots being their blueprint for scoring.
Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers took the Morey and D’Antoni Rockets to school and put on an elite clinic on how to shut down the three scoring keys Houston’s small ball offense relies upon to destroy opposing defenses. After a first half shootout, the Lakers doubled and forced Harden to give up the ball, hounded and chased Houston’s shooters off the 3-point line, and protected the rim without fouling with a swarm of mobile shot blockers.
The result was a second half where the Lakers’ defense shut down the small ball Rockets’ offense, holding them to just 38 points on 13 for 37 from the field (35.1%), 6 of 16 from deep (37.5%), and 6 of 6 from the line (100%). This was against a Houston team that boasted the third best second half offense in the NBA during the regular season, averaging 56.8 points while taking 44.5 shots from the field, 23.3 three-pointers, and 13.2 free throws.
The usual defensive strategy in the NBA is to take away what a team does best and force them to do what they don’t do best. In the second half, Frank Vogel’s strategy was to take away everything the Rockets are built to do. They limited Houston to just 16 3-point attempts versus their average of 23. They allowed them to make just 1 of 11 on layups and blocked 5 of them. And they defended without fouling allowing the Rockets only 6 free throws.
It will be fun to see what changes D’Antoni will make to counter the moves Frank Vogel’s made to shut down Houston’s offense in what is a must win game. These are the chess games where great coaching comes into play. So far Mike D’Antoni won the first game and Frank Vogel has come back to win the last two games. Morey’s and D’Antoni’s future with the Rockets may be on the line tonight so look for new winkles tonight against the Lakers.
If the Lakers win, this series is all but over. If the Rockets win, then all bets are off and we’re likely to see a Game 7. I still have the Lakers in 5 but we’re going to need big games from Playoff LeBron and Playoff Rondo to do it.
There’s a reason why Los Angeles Lakers’ fans and pundits continue to call for Frank Vogel to change his starting lineup against the Houston Rockets. Without fans and home court, the Bubble Playoffs are all about matchups.
It might be a different story if the Lakers had a dominant offensive center like Shaquille O’Neal who could even the slate and make the Rockets pay for going small but that’s not JaVale McGee’s or Dwight Howard’s strength. Regardless of what Vogel contends, JaVale and Dwight are not the right matchups against a Rockets’ team that spreads the floor, plays five-out basketball, and transforms them into liabilities on offense and defense.
What’s frustrating for Lakers fans and pundits is Vogel’s continued refusal to bench JaVale McGee against the small ball Rockets despite the fact he has not played well either in the regular season seeding games or the playoffs. In the seeding games, he averaged 4.6 ppg and 5.1 rpg in 15.3 minutes with a -8.1 plus/minus and -23.8 net rating. Against Houston, he’s averaged 2.0 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 10.3 minutes with -1.5 plus/minus and -5.0 net rating.
Despite the critics, the poor performances, and the devastating stats, Vogel still claims McGee and Howard will be major factors against the Rockets. Here are four changes he could make to improve the Lakers’ starting lineup:
1. Kyle Kuzma replaces JaVale McGee.
Davis at the five and Karma at the four has been the Lakers’ favored closing lineup to finish games for most of the season so it makes sense to use this lineup to make sure the Lakers start each game and half with their best five. Replacing McGee with Kuzma would enable the Lakers to match up on defense with the Rockets’ five-out offense and conversely let them spread the floor and create spacing on offense for LeBron and AD to attack the rim.
2. Markieff Morris replaces JaVale McGee.
The beauty of starting Morris for McGee is the Lakers not only add a 3-point shooter and perimeter defender but Markieff can also play center, which allows Anthony Davis to remain at his preferred power forward position. Morris may not be the elite defensive rim protector McGee is but he brings an offensive versatility and defensive toughness to the center position that gives the Lakers a better matchup against the small ball crazy Rockets.
3. Rajon Rondo replaces JaVale McGee.
The most remarkable stat of Playoff Rondo’s last two games is that he did most of his damage alongside rather than without LeBron James. In fact, the Lakers’ top three 5-player lineups had Rajon and LeBron together. There’s a strong case based on those stats for Frank Vogel to consider starting Rondo next to James to optimize that relationship. Playoff Rondo starting could be the key to the Lakers winning the championship.
4. Alex Caruso replaces JaVale McGee.
The often overlooked and underappreciated combo guard Alex Caruso deserves to be in the discussion as his numbers confirm he is the Lakers’ best perimeter defender and has the team’s best defensive and net ratings. Starting Caruso would give the Lakers another fast and quick defender who does a great job staying in front of his man and has the ability to shoot fthe three, attack the rim, and make plays for teammates on offense.
Since Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel did not start JaVale McGee in the second half of Game 3, the big question is will he do the same for the start of Game 4, when he went small and started Markieff Morris instead? Frankly, that might be the most comfortable adjustment for Vogel to make since Morris plays excellent defense, allows the Lakers to dominate the boards, and can create spacing by stretching the floor for LeBron and AD.
Since Rajon Rondo is likely still on a some form of minutes restriction and Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso have well defined roles off the bench, my bet’s on Frank Vogel starting Markieff Morris in Game 4 like he did in Game 3.
Lost in the story lines about LeBron James’ blockfest and Playoff Rondo’s reemergence is how coach Frank Vogel’s changes in the Lakers’ style of play may have transformed not only the team’s offense but also their defense.
The irony is the Lakers basically stole a page from the Rockets’ playbook on how to optimize small ball at both ends of the court. That’s a surprising and unexpected move from a coach who’s steadfastly resisted change all season. Frankly, it’s a welcome better-late-than-never move by a coach who has frustrated Lakers’ fans and pundits with his stubborn insistence on playing big and unwillingness to embrace changes in style of play. Until now.
Offensively, the Lakers for the first time this season embraced the style of small ball the Rockets play with various 5-out sets with all five offensive players positioned behind the arc and the paint open for drives and cuts. This was the perfect counter for the Rocket’s paint packing defense as it opened up lanes for LeBron James to attack the rim, isolate and overpower PJ Tucker in the post, or find players like Kyle Kuzma cutting to the rim.
While the Lakers have played small ball with Anthony Davis at the five a third to half of the time this season, Frank Vogel has always preferred to play more traditional 4-out sets with AD in the post rather than 5-out sets. But once JaVale McGee left the game in the first quarter, the Lakers clearly focused on keeping the paint open for players to attack the rim, cutters to slash, and LeBron James rather than Anthony Davis to post PJ Tucker.
While turning the ball over too often and failing to push the pace limited the impact of the Lakers’ strategy to play all five players behind the 3-point line, the 5-out sets took their toll as defenses ramped up in the second half. Taking better care of the ball, the Lakers reduced their turnovers from 10 in the first half to just 5 in the second half and pushed the ball to score 8 fast break points in the second half versus just 2 points in the first half.
More importantly, the Lakers were able to combine critical defensive stops with clutch baskets on the offensive end in the fourth quarter by spreading the floor with 5-out sets to prevent the Rockets from packing the paint. Every team’s strategy against the Lakers is to clog the lane so playing 5-out is a significant weapon for the Lakers to add to their repertoire when they meet the Clippers in the next round and whomever they meet in the Finals.
Emulating the Rockets’ small ball style on defense was maybe even more important than mimicking them on offense. One of the big surprises of these playoffs has been the sudden transformation of the Rockets’ defense. Nobody expected going small would turn the Rockets into one of the best defensive teams in the bubble playoffs but it did. The Rockets showed speed, quickness, and athleticism combined with power trumped height.
Last night, we saw a similar transformation in defense for the Lakers as Frank Vogel for the first time benched McGee to start the second half and committed to double teaming Harden and challenging every 3-point shot. This was a bold and dramatic move for a head coach who’s always believed great defense started with protecting the rim but it paid off as the Lakers held the Rockets to just 38 points and 4 of 16 from deep in the second half.
Playing a scrambling small ball style of defense in the second half limited the Rockets from raining threes and forced them to attack the paint which the Lakers countered with intimidating rim protection and 5 blocked shots. What makes the Lakers’ small ball rim protection with LeBron and AD so intimidating is its range, mobility, and explosiveness compared to more traditional shot blocking centers like JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
The Lakers speed, quickness, and athleticism dominated the Rockets’ offense with a defensive rating of 84.4 and shut down James Harden in the second half, limiting him to just 12 points on only 3 of 7 from the field. Yesterday, the Rockets were disparaging the Lakers’ defense and saying there was no way they could stop them. Houston had not lost a game this season when they shot over 40% from three. Until the last two games.
The repercussions of changes head coach Frank Vogel made to the Lakers’ offense and defense could go beyond how the Lakers play the rest of this series against the Rockets and transform how they may play going forward. I’ve always believed great competition creates great teams and the Lakers may owe the Rockets a debt of gratitude for showing them how playing small can not only make them a better team offensively but also defensively.
Frank Vogel finally committing to and changing how the Lakers play when going small may have unlocked the key to winning the championship. The Lakers suddenly may have a powerful new weapon in their arsenal.
There’s no Lakers’ player more controversial or polarizing to the team’s fans and pundits than 34-year old point guard Rajon Rondo and no basketball urban myth more chimerical and illusive than the legend of Playoff Rondo.
Yet that’s exactly what we just witnessed as Playoff Rondo posted 10 points, 9 assists, 5 steals, and 3 rebounds with just 1 turnover to help the Lakers beat the Rockets 117–109 in just his second game in the Bubble Playoffs. Considering Rajon had missed the Lakers’ eight regular season seeding games and five first round playoff games due to thumb and back injuries, watching him come out and rock Playoff Rondo was totally unexpected.
On the other hand, maybe we should have had faith in legend of Playoff Rondo. After all, the last time he had a chance to play in the NBA playoffs was in 2018 when he led the underdog Pelicans to a sweep of the Blazers. Rondo averaged 11.3 points, 13.3 assists, and 7.5 rebounds in 35.4 minutes while shooting 48.7% from the field, 42.9% from deep, and 80.0% from the line and posting an impressive plus/minus of 10.5 and net rating of 13.7.
Playoff Rondo’s performance against the Blazers in 2018 was not just an isolated performance as Rajon’s career playoff stats have always outpaced his regular season stars, confirming he plays best in the heat of the playoffs.
Rondo’s career regular season averages are 10.2 points, 8.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.7 steals in 31.0 minutes while his career playoff stats are 13.9 points, 9.3 assists, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.9 steals in 37.4 minutes.
But the legend of Playoff Rondo is more than a statistical aberration. It has to do with the swag and confidence he inspires when he’s on the court and the way he efficiently runs the offense and smoothly distributes the ball. While hypercritical fans and pundits may bemoan his stats and analytics, Rajon has earned the full trust and complete confidence of Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel and superstar duo LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The Lakers won last night’s pivotal game against the Rocket largely because Playoff Rondo showed up. His +28 plus/minus and +46.7 net rating not only led the Lakers but he was part of the team’s four best 5-player lineups. While the Rockets are likely to continue disrespecting his gravity behind the 3-point line, there’s little question Playoff Rondo is a huge difference maker on the floor with LeBron James or when the King is resting on the bench.
JaVale McGee’s unfortunate injury and the way the Lakers played when going small with Rondo in the lineup may have opened the door to Vogel finally making a change in the Lakers’ starting lineup for Tuesday’s game. Frank has been reluctant to change his starting lineup but JaVale’s injury and Rajon’s play may have given him the opportunity to make a change that could empower the Laker by starting Playoff Rondo at point guard.
One thing Vogel cannot discount is how Rondo takes pressure off of LeBron James to be both a primary scorer and playmaker for the Lakers. Rondo running the offense unleashes LeBron to be in full-time attack mode.
And that’s exactly what the Lakers need to get past the Houston Rockets.
After the Houston Rockets’ Game 1 Round 2 upset of the Los Angeles Lakers, there are renewed calls for Frank Vogel to change his starting lineup but what he actually needs to do is change the style his team is playing.
Heading into the playoffs, the concern was the Lakers’ ability to contain the Rockets’ small ball offense. While the Lakers still need to adjust defensively, their real problem in Game 1 was beating the Rockets’ small ball defense. The smaller, tougher Rocket’s defenders were essentially able to bully and outplay the taller Lakers’ players in the paint at both ends of the court, winning points-in-the-paint and tying them in the battle of the boards.
Benching traditional back-to-basket centers is only part of the solution to matching up with the Rockets’ crafty small ball lineup. Starting and playing Anthony Davis or Markieff Morris at center will help the Lakers defensively. But pounding the ball inside to Anthony Davis against PJ Tucker is exactly what the Rockets want. You don’t beat them just by going small on offense. You actually need to play small, which means without a traditional center.
While the Rockets offense is revolutionary, their strategy on defense uses simple time-tested traditional tactics of packing the paint, keeping their opponents from getting to the rim, and forcing them to shoot long jumpers. Starting Anthony Davis at center and isolating him in the post against the smaller PJ Tucker is fools’ gold. It only clogs the lane, prevents LeBron from getting to the rim, and ultimately helps the Rocket’s defensive strategy.
What the Lakers need to do to beat Houston’s switch-everything defense is abandon trying to take advantage of their height in the post and instead spread the defense to open the floor for LeBron and AD to attack the rim. The way to beat Houston’s defense is to unpack the paint and eliminate any rim protection by playing 5-out sets positioning five players who can effectively shoot the three and attack the basket behind the 3-point line.
Players who could be good fits for 5-out sets include starters LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Danny Green plus reserves Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris, and Dion Waiters. Frank Vogel would be smart to consider playing an eight-player rotation of those players against the Houston Rockets. They could match up on defense and enable the Lakers to spread the floor and attack the paint on offense.
You’ll notice that I did not include Rajon Rondo in that eight-player rotation because he lacks the 3-point gravity necessary to keep his defender from sagging off him to clog up the middle and is a liability on the defensive end. Besides a respectful loyalty to JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard for their contributions to winning the West, Vogel needs to understand this is not the right series for Rondo or McGee or Howard to play. Not against the Rockets.
While the Lakers also lost Game 1 to the Blazers, what’s scary about losing the first game against the Rockets is how they beat LA at their own game. They didn’t dominate by raining threes. They played smarter basketball. Like Mike Budenholzer, whose refusal to make changes has the Bubble Bucks on the verge of being swept by the Heat, Frank Vogel’s reluctance to adjust his lineups or style of play may end up costing the Bubble Lakers.
Right now, the Lakers aren’t in great danger but if Vogel continues to rely on his usual lineups and rotations and the Lakers lose Game 2 to the Rockets and go down 0–2, the odds of them winning the series plummet to just 7%. While that’s not the 0% odds facing the Bucks, it’s not where the Lakers want to be 2 games into the series, which means Vogel needs to get serious and make major adjustments before Sunday’s Game 2 against Houston.
The changes Frank needs to make are simple. On offense, he needs to bench McGee and Howard, give their roles and minutes to Kuzma, Caruso, Morris, and Waiters, and spread the floor with 5-out sets to free LeBron and AD. Defensively, he should consider playing a triangle and two zone to double Harden at the half-court line, commit defenders to prevent easy corner threes, and keep Anthony Davis in the middle for rim protection.
The bottom line is LeBron James and Anthony Davis are being outplayed by James Harden and Russell Westbrook but a big part of the blame is due to Frank Vogel stubbornly refusing to change his lineups and strategies.
Despite a dismal showing in the bubble and first playoff game and calls from pundits and fans to change the Lakers’ starting lineup, Frank Vogel elected to stay with the players who got him to the dance and it paid off.
In their four straight playoff wins over the Blazers, the Lakers’ starting lineup of James, Davis, McGee, Green, and Caldwell-Pope had a 5-player offensive rating of 147.1, defensive rating of 97.1, and net rating of 50.0. They outscored the Blazers by 50 points when on the court while shooting 60.4% from the field and 55.0% from deep while holding Portland to 44.6% from the field and 25.0% from deep, best for any Lakers’ lineups.
The individual stats for the Lakers’ starters during the four-game win steak also confirmed Vogel’s trust and confidence as all five, along with Kuzma and Caruso, posted positive net ratings and positive plus/minus ratings. Vogel’s likely to continue to rely on and give major minutes to this 7-player rotation featuring starters James, Davis, McGee, Green, and Caldwell-Pope and reserves Kuzma and Caruso as the Lakers advance in the playoffs.
While they haven’t played as well as those in the core rotation, three other players who will get minutes depending on the opponent and matchups are Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, and Rajon Rondo, now back from injury. The biggest lineup challenges Vogel will face is what to do with McGee and Howard if the Lakers have to play teams like the Rockets, Nuggets, Bucks, Raptors, or Heat, who all have centers who are capable 3-point shooters.
While the Lakers have thrived all season playing big when opposing teams go small, the playoffs present a different challenge and game-to-game adjustments become more important the deeper teams go into the playoffs. It will be interesting to see what Vogel does with McGee and Howard should the Lakers face the Rockets in the second round. Javale has played well while Dwight has struggled but neither is good as a perimeter defender.
The Lakers best lineups are when they go small ball with Davis or Morris at the five and McGee and Howard on the bench, which they did just 26% of the time in the regular season and only 33% of the time in the playoffs. Going forward, the Lakers are likely to play small close to half of the time, like they did back in March when they swept the Bucks and Clippers in back-to-back game with Davis or Morris playing center 48% of the time.
Overall, Vogel’s done an exemplary job managing the Lakers’ rotations when you consider the varying playing time he’s given McGee and Howard and the challenge of integrating late additions Morris, Waiters, and Smith. While he’s been hesitant to change his starting lineups, he’s embraced playing small with Davis or Morris at the five when matchups demanded it and done a good job doling out minutes to allow everybody to contribute.
Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel should be congratulated for staying with the players who got him to the dance and not listening to the critics who demanded changes. Hopefully, he’ll continue to make the right calls.
The Los Angeles Lakers shut down the Portland Blazers’ Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum but they’ll face an infinitely more daunting challenge slowing down Houston Rockets’ superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Not only did the Rockets beat the Lakers two of the three times they met during the regular season but their small ball approach could be a challenge for a Los Angeles team that starts a traditional back-to-the-basket center. The outcome of the series could depend whether Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel to is willing to adjust his starters and rotations to the Rockets’ style of play or whether he wants to stay the course and stick with his usual lineups.
While Vogel has been reluctant all year to change his starting lineups, he’s acknowledged Houston’s small ball style could necessitate some changes. Here are four adjustments the Lakers need to make to beat the Rockets:
1. Start Anthony Davis at Center.
The Lakers need to go small to match up with the Rockets, who are going to start five players under 6′ 7″ and run a five-out offense with all five players behind the 3-point line to spread the defense and eliminate rim protection. That makes McGee and Howard, who averaged 33.6 minutes in the three games against the Rockets, liabilities. The Lakers need to counter Houston’s small ball lineup by starting Davis at the five and Kuzma at the four.
The Lakers need to resist the temptation to try to defeat the Rockets with their usual starting lineup and rotations. Houston can’t be forced play a different style because they’ve set their roster to only be able to play small. McGee or Howard defending 3-point shooters on the perimeter can’t work defensively and makes it hard for the Lakers’ to match threes offensively. The only solution is to play Anthony Davis and Markieff Morris at the five.
Thinking you can counter the Rockets’ 3-point shooting by pounding the ball inside on offense plays right into their hands. 3 points are greater than 2. The Lakers need to adjust their lineups and go small to beat the Rockets.
2. Double Team James Harden.
The Lakers would be wise to deploy the double team tactics that worked against Damian Lillard against James Harden to limit his shots and force him to give up the ball. Containing Harden is a key to beating the Rockets. The Lakers double teamed Harden in the team’s three previous meetings and held him to just 29.0 points per game vs. 34.3 for season and 32.0% from deep vs. 35.5% for season while forcing 6.3 turnovers per game.
The big question is how the Lakers defend the other four Rockets’ players. Rather than having everybody scramble to rotate after doubling Harden, the Lakers should consider playing a 2-1-2 zone to keep AD in the middle. Once you double Harden, you’re already playing 4 against 3 so it makes sense to try and eliminate high percentage layups and corner threes and force more lower percentage mid-range twos and above-the-break threes.
Turning the Harden double team into a zone is the kind of out-of-the-box move a coach like Nick Nurse would embrace. It would make life easier for the players not doubling and could be sprinkled in to surprise the Rockets.
3. Make and Take More Threes.
The Rockets’ goal is to transform the game into a 3-point shooting contest and create a mathematical mismatch by hoisting 50 to 60 threes, making 20 to 25 of them, and outscoring their opponents from deep by 20 to 30 points. So far in the playoffs, the Rockets have made 19.2 of 52.8 threes taken per game while the Thunder have only made 11.2 of 37.2 threes taken per game. That’s a differential of 8 more threes and 24 more points per game.
Meanwhile, the Lakers so far have made only 12.0 of the 35.0 threes taken per game in the playoffs, which means there’s no way they’re going to win the series against the Rockets unless they they take a lot more 3-point shots. The Rockets won two of the three regular season games the teams played by averaging 10 more threes for 30 more points per game. The Lakers must cut that differential at least in half to defeat the Rockets and win this series.
That means, if the Rockets are going to take 50 to 60 threes per game, then the Lakers need to take at least 40 to 50 threes per game to keep pace and keep the 3-point differential to no more than 5 made threes and 15 points.
4. Unleash LeBron and AD from Deep.
For the Lakers to beat the Rockets, LeBron and AD need take and make their 3-point shots, which they didn’t do versus the Rockets in the regular season where James was just 3 for 15 on threes and Davis didn’t attempt a three. Without LeBron and AD taking and making their share of threes, there is no way the Lakers can keep pace with the Rockets who are going to launch 50 to 60 threes and drain 20 to 25 of them for a 20 to 30 point differential.
The good news is James and Davis have dramatically improved their 3-point shooting in the playoffs. LeBron is second on the team with 13 makes on 28 takes for 46.4% while Davis is fourth with 7 makes on 18 takes for 38.9%. The Lakers are going to need LeBron and AD to be even more aggressive and efficient from deep if they want to beat the Rockets. They can’t afford to be outscored by 20 points from deep if they want to win the series.
The Lakers need to run plays to get LeBron and AD more wide open threes. They should take advantage of pick-and-pops for Davis at the top of the key and have LeBron take the open threes when defenders go under screens.
In many ways, this series will be a repeat of the Lakers’ first round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. The media will portray the Rockets as a deadly landmine waiting to blow up the Lakers and predict a 7-game series. But the Rockets have no answer for LeBron James and Anthony Davis whereas the Lakers’ defense has the tools to slow down James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Lakers just need to make and take enough threes.
The Rockets will be a tougher challenge because of their style of play but the Lakers will win the series in 5 games. Houston doesn’t have the offense to beat the Lakers’ defense or the defense to stop the Lakers’ offense.
While the Lakers have what may be the best defense in the NBA playoffs, their offense is prone to struggling, especially when their shooters are not hitting from deep and teams are packing the paint to limit their superstars.
The Lakers’ offense needs a third superstar who’s a guard, a center who can stretch the floor, and a coaching staff who can create an offensive scheme to better empower superstar forwards LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Making savvy moves to accomplish these three goals during the coming offseason should be the Lakers’ top priority. Here are three exciting moves they should make to upgrade their offense to match their elite defense:
1. Re-sign DeMarcus Cousins
Despite evidence the Lakers’ best lineup is with Anthony Davis at the five, the Lakers don’t appear interested in making that their starting or primary lineup at this time since Davis continues to prefer to play power forward.
The dilemma the Lakers face is the two centers they currently rely upon are both traditional back-to-the-basket defensive centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, who tend to clog up the paint and hurt offensive spacing. Because Vogel’s a strong believer great defense starts inside-out with rim protection, any Lakers’ stretch five center will need to be able defensively to hold his ground in the post as well as be a legit threat as a 3-point shooter.
Re-signing DeMarcus Cousins is the logical answer to finding a center who can space the floor as well as defend in the low post. Cousins experience playing alongside Anthony Davis in New Orleans make the ideal choice. Before his Achilles injury two years ago, Boogie was on pace to become the first center in NBA history to take over 500 and make close to 200 threes, which was why the Lakers originally signed him at the start of last season.
NBA observers expect Dwight Howard to leave the Lakers in free agency this offseason and DeMarcus Cousins to be re-signed as his replacement. Re-signing Boogie would be the first step to upgrading the Lakers’ offense.
2. Trade for Victor Oladipo
The Pacers’ poor performance in the NBA playoffs has resulted in the firing of head coach Nate McMillan and rumors the team should trade 28-year old All-Star guard Victor Oladipo before he becomes a free agent next season.
The arguments to trade Oladipo include concerns about the small market Pacers’ financial ability to retain him in free agency and worries regarding his health and fit with a team that played better without him than with him. Right now, the Pacers are not able to offer Victor an extension for more than 20% more than the $21 million he is going to be paid next season, which means they would have to wait until next season if they want to keep him.
Waiting to try and sign Oladipo to a max contract two offseasons from now raises the risk of losing him for nothing, which the Pacers cannot afford to do. That’s why everybody expects them to look to trade him this offseason. Oladipo will also have the same leverage Anthony Davis used to force his way to the Lakers by threatening not to re-sign if the Pacers don’t trade him to a team he prefers, which could open the door for the Lakers to get him.
LeBron should follow Kawhi’s example with PG and meet with Victor and convince him to demand a trade to the Lakers for Kuzma, Green, and a pick. It would be an opportunity for Victor to win a ring with LeBron and AD.
3. Hire Alvin Gentry
There’s no question Frank Vogel’s a great defensive coach and has done a fantastic job coaching LeBron James and Anthony Davis and positioned the Lakers to have a great chance at winning their 17th NBA championship.
But the Lakers’ offense has not been as dominating as their defense despite having two top-five superstars. The offense relies too heavily on isolation plays for their superstars and lacks the elite spacing of a modern offense. The front office and the difficulty of building a championship roster with limited cap space and trade assets are partially responsible but the coaching staff also deserves blame for the team’s static and dated offensive schemes.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ firing of head coach Alvin Gentry could give the Lakers the perfect opportunity to upgrade their coaching staff with one of the brightest and most respected offensive minds in today’s NBA game. Before his stint as Pelicans’ head coach, Gentry was the lead assistant under Steve Kerr at Golden State and the architect responsible for transforming the Warriors’ offense into a legendary championship juggernaut.
Vogel likes having former head coaches on his staff and we’re likely to have a vacancy. Frank needs an offensive coordinator to innovate that side of the game and Alvin Gentry would be the perfect candidate for the position.
There will surely be changes to the Lakers’ roster next season whether or not they win the championship. Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo all have player options. Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, Dion Waiters, Jared Dudley, and two-way players Devontae Cacok and Kostas Antetokounmpo will all be free agents. There’s rumors the Lakers could lose Bradley and Howard to free agency.
While the Lakers won’t have cap space, they will have a $9 million MLE, which they could use to sign a veteran point guard like Goran Dragic, who would be the perfect replacement if Avery Bradley opted out of his contract. An upgraded Lakers’ starting lineup next season of Goran Dragic, Victor Oladipo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins backed by Rondo, Caruso, KCP, Morris, and McGee would be championship caliber.
With the pandemic forcing teams to cut expenses, a rich local television contract, and an ownership committed to winning, the Lakers should have opportunities next season to upgrade their offense to match their defense.
It was quintessential LeBron James taking control of the chaotic boycott created by the Milwaukee Bucks’ players and threatening to take his ball and go home to pressure the NBA to do more to support racial justice.
To begin with, I find it impossible to believe LeBron James really wanted to cancel the playoffs despite how angry and disappointed he may have been with the lack of progress and support for the Black Live Matter movement. Remember LeBron’s first comment after the Milwaukee players announced their decision to boycott their game with Orlando was an Instagram post reminding everyone the playoffs were “BOYCOTTED NOT POSTPONED.”
No disrespect to his commitment to Black Lives Matter as we all know how hard LeBron has fought for justice, education, and opportunity for the black community but he’s also on a mission to win his fourth NBA championship. As Kevin Ding reported, LeBron’s mission has always been two-fold: “Play the game at a high level. Bring a championship back to L.A., hopefully. And continue to push the envelope on creating change for my people.”
These are not mutually exclusive goals. In fact, they’re synchronized goals that are best accomplished synergistically. The more successful LeBron is as a pro basketball player, the more power he has to lobby for social change. LeBron’s also smart enough to understand the source of his social power is his standing as one of the greatest players in league history and the NBA playoffs are his best platform and opportunity to wield that power.
The behind-the-scenes reporting is LeBron and players from other NBA teams were blindsided and infuriated by the decision of the Bucks’ players because they acted alone, without notice to, or in concert with other teams. LeBron’s informal vote to cancel the playoffs and decision to walk out of the meeting was to send a message to players who didn’t understand the stakes and pressure the NBA for more support in the fight against racial injustice.
The media reports about how the ensuing meetings and discussions were able to convince LeBron to change his stance and support continuing the playoffs are laughable and naïve and insult his social savvy and intelligence. More than any superstar in sports, LeBron understands how to use his platform as the face of the NBA to lobby for and force social change. LeBron was playing chess while the rest of the players were playing checkers.
The morning after LeBron walked out, the players had a meeting and came to a unanimous decision to move forward with the playoffs. That evening they discussed their decision on a group team call with the league owners. Per Taylor Rooks: “Lebron was the last player to speak on the call and delivered a strong, thoughtful message to the owners that the work has to continue, and the owners have to truly dedicate to advancing this cause.”
Why LeBron grabbed the mike at the end of that meeting was to remind the NBA the viability of the playoffs depends on his and the Lakers participation and the league needs to step up to the plate and do more for racial justice. From Taylor Rooks this morning: “The NBA and NBPA took major steps toward tangible change and social justice. That is the most important part of these two days. Progression and the advancement of equality.”
This morning, the NBA and NBPA announced three new measures designed to support social justice and racial equality: (1) A social justice coalition to promote access to voting, civic engagement, and meaningful police and criminal justice reform. (2) A commitment to work to convert NBA arenas and facilities into safe in-person voting locations. (3) An program with NBA partners to provide advertising spots during each game to promote voting.
It’s not a coincidence the new measures announced by the NBA align with goals of the Voting Rights Group LeBron James and other black athletes and entertainers created to protect and promote African-American voting rights. LeBron James, Chris Paul, and players pushing for social change know legitimate progress on racial justice, education, and opportunity issues is totally dependent on black Americans voting in the November election.
LeBron is now taking flack from Stephen A. Smith and some of the younger players for acting like he was a king and taking over the boycott to push his agenda but that’s what great leaders do when chaos offers opportunity.
The NBA playoffs will resume Saturday after what amounts to a three-day strike by NBA players protesting inaction by the state of Wisconsin and the city of Kenosha to address police brutality after the shooting of Jacob Blake.
After several heated meetings and threats of boycotting the NBA playoffs, the players decided their best course of action would be to continue to play and take advantage of the power of their platform to press for racial justice. The players understood boycotting the season would not only deprive them of the platform they currently have to fight against racial injustice but could also cost millions in revenue and lead to possible cancellation of the CBA.
While critics will write off the boycott as players simply choosing profit over principle, others will recognize the importance of the players’ actions as another step in the growing resurgence in a new national social conscience. Like the ‘Me, Too’ and ‘Cancel Culture’ movements, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the NBA players’ strike to support it are part of a long overdue and outsized wave of social phenomena the likes of which we’ve never before seen.
The decision by the NBA players to resume the playoffs means the games will continue until mid-September, which means the players will have almost two months to use their platform to shine a light on racial injustice. The strike will refocus attention on racial injustice issues and give players the leverage to find new ways to keep the media and public engaged and promote the changes and reforms that need to be implemented.
The players made the right decision to resume the playoffs and keep their platform to fight for real justice and change alive. Abandoning the bubble in anger and frustration would only have harmed the causes they support. While legitimate reform will still take time and racism may never be totally eradicated, the pace and demand for change is exponentially accelerating with the ultimate day of reckoning coming when we vote on November 3rd.
The NBA players have set an example of social action and responsibility players from other professional sports leagues must embrace and emulate. What’s at stake is nothing less than the heart and soul of America.
The stars aligned for the Lakers last night as an angry LeBron lamented the shooting of Jacob Blake, a proud Anthony Davis came out en fuego, and the team donned Black Mamba jerseys to honor Kobe and Gigi with a big win.
It was a night of unimaginable joy and pain as the Lakers demolished the Blazers 135–115 on 8/24 with Kobe and Gigi Bryant smiling down from above while America mourned another blatant incident of racial injustice. As LeBron sadly lamented after the game: “Having two boys of my own and me being an African American in America and to see what continues to happen with the police brutality towards my kind … it’s very troubling.”
The mixed emotions were on raw display as the Lakers took a 24–8 lead over the Blazers midway through the first quarter. “When I looked up there and seen 24–8, I was like, ‘OK, this is a [sign]. He’s here in the building.’” Yet, after the game, LeBron’s made abundantly clear his mind was on more than just basketball and winning the game: “I got half my brain locked in on the playoffs and the other half on how the hell I can help black people.””
Watching LeBron channel that joy and anger into a 30-point, 10-assist marvelous masterpiece of a game where he shot 10 of 12 from the field and 4 of 5 from beyond the arc while playing just 28 minutes was truly special. The mental focus and discipline, the physical effort and talent, and the laser precision and execution at 35-years old is something we’ve never seen in the NBA before. LeBron is rewriting the rules of what the GOAT means.
Then there’s LeBron’s co-superstar Anthony Davis, who played just 18 minutes last night before leaving with back spasms with the Lakers leading the Blazers by 91–53. Seriously, 18 minutes with a plus/minus of +37? Together, LeBron and AD are the best superstar duo in the league and Davis the King’s best co-star ever: “AD is one of those unicorns and he does things that some of my other great teammates are not capable of doing.”
Their synergy and symbiosis as superstar teammates is unmatched. Davis challenged James to join him on the NBA All-Defensive team while no NBA duo has ever created more assists than the James to Davis connection has. Here’s AD after the Lakers’ Game 1 loss: “I didn’t feel like I performed to the level that I needed to. He let me have my moment and kind of get on myself. And then he talked to me and said I was fine. He said it was one game.”
Indeed, Anthony bounced back with a vengeance the next three games, posting 26.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals in 29.2 minutes per game and shooting 61.7% from the field and 42.9% from deep. His contributions at both ends of the court for the last three games have been exceptional and legitimately MVP caliber: team-best 131.7 offensive rating, team-best 86.6 defensive rating, and team-best 45.2 net rating.
What LeBron James and Anthony Davis were able to do with last night’s dominating performance on 8/24, the day that will forever be Kobe Bryant day, was to showcase how they’ve totally embraced ‘Mamba Mentality.’ There was no taking the pedal off the metal and giving the Blazers an opportunity to get back in the game and the series. Instead, we saw the stone cold killer instinct that always made Kobe Bryant such a feared foe.
But it’s not just the Lakers’ superstars who are clicking on all cylinders and playing with Mamba Mentality. It’s suddenly the entire Lakers’ team that’s not only playing lock-down defense but also shooting lights out from deep. The Lakers shut down the Blazers’ high-powered defense the last three games and now have the #1 defensive rating in the playoffs. They’ve also come alive from deep and are shooting a league 7th best 38.3%.
While the Rockets and Clippers, their next expected foes, are struggling, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers seem to have harnessed the power of Mamba Mentality to pursue their 17th NBA championship.
Finding a spot in the Lakers’ starting lineup for Kyle Kuzma has always been a tough challenge since he plays the same small forward and power forward positions the team’s two superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis play.
The problem is Kyle Kuzma would be a starter on almost every other team in the NBA other than the Lakers and deserves to be paid accordingly, which is why the discussions about his future have all focused on trades. The hard reality in today’s salary capped NBA is there is no way the Lakers are going to pay a starter level salary for a player to come off the bench to backup max-contract superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
What makes the situation even more frustrating is Kuzma has revamped his game to become a true starter-level player. He’s fixed his broken shot and dramatically improved his defense, playmaking, and decision making. Critics used to write off Kuz as another one-dimensional scorer on a losing team and question whether he could hold up as starter on a championship team. It’s a small sample size so far but Kuz has been changing minds.
The challenge for the Lakers right now is to figure out how to fit Kyle Kuzma into the starting lineup now that he’s shown he has the maturity and skill sets to play with and complement both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. LeBron has said the Lakers will need Kuzma to be their third star in the playoffs to win the championship and Vogel has promised he will play ‘big’ minutes in the playoffs but so far he’s only averaged 24.7 minutes per game.
The truth is it’s impossible for Kyle Kuzma to get starter level minutes off the bench on the Lakers because he’s not a one-dimensional player like Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford whose primary focus is just making buckets. Frank Vogel needs to make some hard decisions as the playoffs progress because Kuzma needs to start or at the least get more rather than fewer minutes in the playoffs if the Lakers are going to win the championship.
The logical solution is for the Lakers to move Anthony Davis to the five to replace JaVale McGee and start Kyle Kuzma at the four, which Vogel has been reluctant to do because of Davis’ stated preference to play the four. Kuzma’s recent excellent defense against elite scoring guards like James Harden, Jamal Murray, and Damian Lillard, however, may have created another opportunity to work his way into the Lakers’ starting lineup.
In today’s positionless NBA , the position a player can defend has become the position he can play and Kuzma’s improving ability to defend twos could possibly open a door for him to become the Lakers’ future shooting guard. Playing the two, the 6′ 8″ Kuzma could easily evolve into the third star the Lakers need to play alongside James and Davis. He’d be a tantalizing vision for the Lakers to embrace and matchup nightmare for opponents to fear.
Danny Green’s decline and subpar play has not only opened a door for Kyle Kuzma to start or take over major minutes at shooting guard in the playoffs but also raised speculation Kuz could become the Lakers’ future at the two. The looming presence of the small ball crazy Houston Rockets as the Lakers’ likely next playoff opponent should be the perfect opportunity for coach Frank Vogel to start Kuzma or at least let him play true starter minutes
There’s little question now Kuzma can produce if given the opportunity and starter minutes. He was the Lakers’ best 3-point shooter and had the team’s third best net rating in the bubble and second best net rating in the playoffs. Kuz started 68 games last season and averaged 18.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 33.2 minutes. This season, he started 9 games this season and averaged 20.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 32.4 minutes.
It’s time for Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel to end his stubborn reluctance to making changes in his starting lineup and embrace the opportunities coming up to give Kyle Kuzma a chance to show what he can do as a starter.
Anthony Davis only played center for 17 minutes in the Los Angeles Lakers’ Game 3 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last night but for the second game in row the Lakers dominated play and won when AD played the five.
The Lakers outscored the Blazers by 16 points in the 17 minutes Anthony Davis played the five, which is the reason they were able to win the game 116–108 and come back to take a 2–1 lead in the first round of the series. Four of five of the Lakers’ lineups that played over 1 minute and posted the highest net ratings last night featured Anthony Davis playing center, more confirmation AD at the five is unquestionably the Lakers’ best lineup.
Here’s are the Lakers’ 5-player lineups with AD at center from NBA.Com:
Here’s a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of AD’s four stints at center:
Davis first moved to the five with 5:11 remaining in the first quarter and the Blazers leading 20–14 and helped the Lakers cut the Blazers lead to 25–29. AD struggled the entire quarter, only scoring on 3 of 7 free throw attempts. Anthony’s uncharacteristic poor free throw shooting must have been contagious as the Lakers missed a golden opportunity to get off to a good start by only making 8 out of 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter.
Anthony started playing the five with 3:36 left in the second quarter and helped the Lakers reduce a 6-point 43-49 deficit when he entered the game to a 53-54 deficit before sitting down with only 13 seconds left in the half. Unfortunately, the Blazers’ McCollum hit a 3-point jumper at the buzzer to give Portland a 57-53 lead at halftime. Davis ended up with a disappointing first half scoring just 6 points although posting 5 boards and 3 assists.
Anthony Davis’ dominating stretch at the five came in the Lakers 40-point third quarter when Vogel took out JaVale McGee and moved AD to center with 4:35 remaining in the third and the Lakers leading the Blazers 77–76. Over the final 4 minutes and 35 seconds, Davis scored 7 points, grabbed 2 rebounds, and anchored a stifling defense as the Lakers outscored the Blazers by 8 points to take a 93–86 lead at the end of the third quarter.
AD’s final stint at the five came with 3:25 left in the fourth quarter when Frank Vogel pulled Dwight Howard and moved Anthony Davis to the five with the Lakers still holding onto a 7-point 105–98 lead over the Blazers. Davis finished a strong fourth quarter with 12 points, 3 boards, 1 assist, and 1 block as the Lakers repelled the Blazers’ desperate efforts to close the lead and clinched their second straight win to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
As the Lakers rediscover their mojo, it’s becoming obvious they should be playing Anthony Davis more at the five as it’s their best lineup. They may not want to start AD at the five but he clearly needs more minutes there. The Lakers have played Davis at center for only 48 minutes total in the 3 games against the Blazers or just 16 of the 36 minutes per game he’s played. The Lakers need to increase that number each round of the playoffs.
In fact, the Lakers would be smart to begin ramping up AD’s minutes at the five for the remainder of this series because they’ll need a heavy dose of it when they meet the small ball crazy Houston Rockets in the second round. The Lakers are going to need Anthony Davis to play center for 25 to 30 minutes per game to matchup against the Rockets so it makes sense for him to begin upping his minutes at the five for the rest of the Portland series.
The further the Lakers progress in the playoffs, the tougher the challenge becomes and the more they’re going to need AD to play the five if they want to have a legitimate chance at winning their 17th NBA championship.
With Anthony Davis playing like a one-man wrecking crew, the starting lineup kicking butt, and the defense clamping down like a vise, the Lakers rediscovered their mojo and revived their bubble championship hopes.
The 111–88 rout of the Blazers was the first time in the bubble the Lakers played at the level they had been playing back in March before the Covid-19 suspension when they swept the Bucks and Clippers in back-to-back games. The bubble has been an inspired revelation for some teams and nightmare scenario for others. For a while, it looked as if the Lakers had fallen into the latter category as they struggled to play close to a championship level.
Their starting lineup was hemorrhaging large leads, their superstars were looking mortal, and their 3-point shooting had all but disappeared. After losing Game 1 to the Blazers, the Lakers looked to be in deep trouble. Fortunately, losing that first playoff game to the Blazers was the best thing that could have happened to the Lakers as it set the alarm bells ringing, rudely woke them up, and empowered them to rediscover their lost mojo.
This win followed the same blueprint the Lakers deployed to exert their superiority back in March, including a dominant Anthony Davis, an inspired team defense, and a big-game urgency and shared next-man-up mentality. Unlike in Game 1, Davis dominated Nurkic and Whiteside with help from McGee and Howard, the Lakers’ defense shut down Lillard and McCollum, and their midrange, 3-point, and free throw shots finally started to fall.
The Lakers clearly played their best game in the bubble, posting a 30-point lead over the Blazers and 88–58 score at the end of the third quarter, which allowed them to rest their starters and key reserves in the fourth quarter. Besides a dominating defense that held Lillard to 18 points on 1 of 7 from deep and McCollum to 13 points on 1 of 5 from deep, the Lakers were led by an unstoppable Anthony Davis who scored 31 points in 29 minutes.
And orchestrating all of it was 35-year old LeBron James, who focused his energy on being an elite playmaker and team defender rather than scorer and picked his moments to inspire with his elite passing and leadership. What has to be scary and disheartening for the Blazers is the Lakers didn’t need LeBron to play like a superstar to dominate this game, not that his 10 points, 6 boards, and 7 assists and solid defense and command didn’t help.
The reality is the Lakers showed why they’re a legitimate championship contender while the Blazers are simply a good team with two great guards that’s just a notch above a normal 8th seed destined to lose in five games. It’s doubtful we’ll see another game in this series where Portland outscores LA by 24 from three and Lillard and McCollum outscore the Lakers guards by 44, which is what the Blazers needed to eke out a 7-point Game 1 win.
Now that the Lakers have rediscovered their mojo and figured out how to win in the bubble, they need to keep their pedal to the metal and come out ready to take care of business and dominate as they run the gauntlet. The path to the bubble championship will be the most difficult in league history and will likely force the Lakers to go through the Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Milwaukee Bucks.
But what the Lakers showed last night in the rout of the Blazers is they are close to unstoppable when James and Davis play their best, their defense clamps down, and their shooters shoot a reasonable percentage. And that is the blueprint for the Lakers winning their 17th NBA championship
Despite being the most polarizing player on the Lakers, the return of Rajon Rondo from injury could be the missing catalyst that triggers head coach Frank Vogel to make substantive changes to the Lakers’ starting lineup.
Rondo could not only give the Lakers desperately needed playmaking when LeBron was on the bench but also when playing alongside him to relieve his playmaking load and allow him to focus more on attacking to put up points. In addition to their shooting woes, the Lakers have seen LeBron’s individual scoring decrease significantly as his playmaking responsibilities increased, which Rondo could help alleviate both playing with and without James.
While Rondo’s lack of 3-point shooting gravity is not a great fit as a starter, his elite performances in 3 games this year and 4 playoff games two years ago against the Trail Blazers make a strong case to consider starting him. There’s no question he has the respect, confidence, and trust of head coach Frank Vogel and superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis and has shown in the past he’s capable of elevating his performance in the playoffs.
Rondo averaged 7.7 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in 15.6 minutes in the Lakers’ 3 games against Portland while shooting 69.2% from the field, 60.0% from deep, and 100% from the line with 4.7 +/- and 15.3 net rating. In the playoffs against Portland, he averaged 11.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 13.3 assists in 35.4 minutes while shooting 48.7% from the field, 42.9% from deep, and 80.0% from the line with 10.5 +/- and 13.7 net rating.
While Vogel’s likely to stick with his current starting lineup for tonight’s game, there’s a good chance he’ll give Rondo some minutes off the bench to see how he performs and if his playmaking could help when LeBron is out. Vogel may also give Rondo minutes alongside James to see if freeing LeBron from playmaking could give the Lakers a scoring boost by unleashing his offense. If that works, then Vogel might even consider starting Rajon.
Deciding to start Rajon Rondo presents Frank Vogel with several challenges, including how to compensate for his lack of gravity as a 3-point shooter and whether his starting necessitates additional changes to the starting lineup. When I look at the problems with the current starting lineup and who on the roster is playing well, I can’t help but wonder how exciting a new Lakers’ starting lineup of Rondo, Waiters, James, Kuzma, and Davis could be.
The Lakers could spread the floor and play five out. They would have five players on the floor who could not only shoot the three but also put the ball on the floor and attack the basket for easy layups or drive-and-dish threes. While the Lakers could be trading defense for offense, that may be exactly what they need from their starters right now and Rondo, Waiters, and Kuzma should play better overall than Caldwell-Pope, Green, and McGee.
In the end, Rajon Rondo’s return from injury could not come at a better time for the Lakers as it may open the door for Frank Vogel to finally make some substantive long needed changes to the Lakers starting lineup.
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Founder and Publisher
“Welcome to the new Lakerholics website. We wanted to create a place that would become the favorite online home for informed and passionate Lakers fans.
Please click ‘CONTACT US’ and let us know how we did, ‘JOIN US’ to become a member, or ‘SUBSCRIBE’ to receive our newsletter.
We promise to open your eyes, ears, and mind to brand-new purple and gold world.”