How can the Los Angeles Lakers adjust ahead of a must-win Game 3 of the Western Conference finals back in L.A.?
No matter what the national storyline was after the opening game of the series against the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers are certainly not “fine” heading back home. Don’t tell Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who prefers to play the underdog card, but Denver was favored coming into this series and is now overwhelmingly so (the team’s minus-475 odds at Caesars Sportsbook imply an 80% chance of winning the series).
The Lakers will need at least one win in Denver to capture the series and have only two opportunities left against a team that is undefeated at home in these playoffs.
Additionally, given no team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series, the Lakers must win Saturday night’s Game 3 to have a realistic chance.
Let’s take a look at how Lakers coach Darvin Ham and the Lakers’ staff might adjust to achieve that result.
Change the starting five again
After Rui Hachimura played a key role off the bench in the Lakers’ second-half comeback in Game 1, changing the matchups for the Lakers defensively and supplying necessary shooting, the expectation was he would start in Game 2.
Instead, Ham and Co. went for a surprising change to the starting five, moving Jarred Vanderbilt back into the lineup over Dennis Schroder — going back to the starters the Lakers had used in their first 11 playoff games.
Using the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt to defend the 6-foot-3 Jamal Murray may have been a factor in the Nuggets’ guard starting slowly on offense. Murray scored 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting in the 17 minutes Vanderbilt played in Game 2 before going off for 21 points after Vanderbilt’s night ended early in the fourth quarter.
Still, that defense brought a pair of costs.
First, the Lakers struggled to score with the non-shooting Vanderbilt on the court, averaging less than a point per possession, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Second, bringing Schroder off the bench required the Lakers to give him a break midway through the second and fourth quarters. Although Murray started cooking against Schroder, it was when Schroder went to the bench at the 7:09 mark of the fourth that the game got away from the Lakers without either of their preferred Murray defenders on the court.
Schroder has done well enough defensively against Murray — who had 16 points on 4-of-10 shooting in Game 2 when Schroder was on the court and Vanderbilt was off — that starting him to get better playmaking and floor spacing makes sense.
The more extreme move for the Lakers to make is starting both Schroder and Hachimura, sending D’Angelo Russell to the bench. Nuggets forward Bruce Brown Jr.’s comments after Game 1, when he said Denver was attacking Russell defensively because “he’s not the best defender, but he definitely tries” were merely stating the obvious.
Through the first two games of the series, the Nuggets’ offense is averaging 1.4 points per possession with Russell on the court, far and away the worst mark of any Lakers regular. The sample size on that stat is too small to be meaningful, but the conclusion watching film or looking at Denver’s shot quality according to Second Spectrum tracking is the same: Russell’s defense is a problem, and his offense (18 points on 7-of-19 shooting and eight assists through two games) hasn’t been enough to make up for it.
After Game 1, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that multiple team sources indicated there’s concern the Lakers could “lose” Russell if they move him to the bench. With the season on the line, that’s a risk the Lakers must take to avoid losing this series.
Beat the drop
Even as the Nuggets advanced to the conference finals, putting two-time MVP Nikola Jokic in pick-and-rolls remained a favorable strategy for opponents. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns averaged 1.03 points per chance when Jokic defended the screen setter, including 1.11 when Jokic played “soft” defense — better known as drop coverage.
Through two games, the Lakers have not been able to find the same success against Jokic in pick-and-rolls. In Game 2, they scored just 0.61 points per chance when Jokic defended the screen setter, the second-lowest mark he’s allowed in any game this season per Second Spectrum.
The results were even worse when Jokic was able to stay in the drop. On 31 of the 46 picks he defended in Game 2, Jokic’s defense was marked as “soft.” The Lakers managed just 0.54 points per chance on those pick-and-rolls — less than half the average for Minnesota and Phoenix.
Because Denver’s guards are so adept at what NBA teams describe as “rear-view contests” where the player defending the ball handler trails the action and attempts to alter a pull-up jumper from behind, more aggressiveness from the Lakers’ guards isn’t likely to help.
Instead, the Lakers might want to consider a counterintuitive strategy of trying to get Jokic to switch off Anthony Davis to Hachimura, who can then serve as the screen-setter. Hachimura is more dangerous popping out to the 3-point line after screening, requiring Jokic to cover a lot of ground if he’s starting out near the paint in a drop — especially with Hachimura in the middle of an all-time heater of a postseason.
After shooting 8-of-10 Thursday, Rui Hachimura is now up to the third-largest increase in his FG% from the regular season to the playoffs among players with at least 100 playoff attempts. pic.twitter.com/9oLVtS8v2A
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 19, 2023
Clean up transition defense
The Lakers’ half-court defense was more than good enough to win Game 2. After averaging 1.04 points per play in half-court situations in the first two rounds according to Cleaning the Glass, second to the Boston Celtics among all playoff teams, the Nuggets managed just 0.92 in Game 2 — slightly worse than the Lakers (0.93) and their worst performance in these playoffs.
Game 2 was lost in transition. A full 22% of Denver’s possessions started in transition, per Cleaning the Glass, their eighth-highest figure this season and easily their most in these playoffs.
This problem isn’t new for the Lakers. Remarkably, the Nuggets’ two highest transition rates all season came against the Lakers during the regular season: 24% of possessions apiece in Denver wins on Oct. 26 and Jan. 9.
Given their potent half-court offense, the Nuggets are nearly unbeatable when they can also add a heavy dose of transition opportunities. When at least 20% of their possessions have started in transition, they’re 15-3 this season, per Cleaning the Glass. By contrast, when their transition rate is less than 10% of possessions, they’re 3-7.
The good news for the Lakers is Denver’s fast-break attack isn’t quite as powerful near sea level. Over the course of the year, the Nuggets have averaged 17% of their possessions starting in transition at home as compared to 14% on the road. Still, the Lakers can’t count on better stamina alone. Getting back on defense must be an emphasis from the coaching staff heading into Game 3.
Ultimately, both games in Denver were competitive enough — decided by a combined 11 points — that the Lakers can reasonably hope to tie the series up back home. Down 2-0, however, the Lakers must do whatever it takes to win Game 3 and avoid a seemingly insurmountable deficit.