The Los Angeles Lakers took less than a week to go from vulnerable to dominant.
After ranking 20th (of 22 teams) offensively in the seeding games and losing an ugly Game 1 in their first round series with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers have seemingly found the groove they were in when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers shortly before the season was suspended in March. Their most complete performance of the restart came Monday, when they thumped the Blazers, 135-115, to take a 3-1 series lead.
The Lakers led 15-0, 24-8 (appropriately on Mamba Day), and 38-14. It started with suffocating defense, keeping Portland scoreless through its first seven possessions. It continued with some ridiculous offense. The Lakers scored a 43 points on their first 24 possessions (1.79 per) and were still averaging more than 1.5 points per possession at the end of the third quarter.
LeBron after the game the Lakers had dedicated to Kobe Bryant : “When I looked up and saw we were up 24-8, I was like, okay, he’s here in the building. It’s a beautiful, beautiful night for our franchise and something we will always remember – this moment.” pic.twitter.com/Q4AekQHNjP
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) August 25, 2020
To properly illustrate his team’s new-found offensive rhythm (and to put some TV viewers to bed early), LeBron James (30 points, six rebounds and 10 assists) casually stepped into a 36-foot 3-pointer to put the Lakers up by 38 with 9:21 left in the third quarter.
But not a perfect night. Anthony Davis, after shooting 7-for-8 from mid-range, left with back spasms early in the third quarter. The Blazers also lost Damian Lillard to a right knee injury midway through the third.
The Blazers say that Lillard will have a second on his knee on Tuesday.
The results of an MRI of Damian Lillard’s right knee tonight were inconclusive. Lillard will undergo a second MRI on Tuesday afternoon in Orlando.
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) August 25, 2020
Davis, who looked comfortable on the Lakers’ bench throughout the second half, said after the game that his back is “doing fine.”
10-for-18 — The combined 3-point shooting from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma.
Davis suddenly becoming Dirk Nowitzki from mid-range (where he’s 11-for-13 over the last two games) and James draining 3-pointers from the logo like Lillard is nice. But the jump-shooting from those two guys, though the Lakers were due given how poorly they shot prior to Game 3, isn’t sustainable. Davis was a 35% mid-range shooter in the regular season, while James shot just 33% on pull-up 3s.
The stars’ best work is done in the paint. And against better defensive teams, they’ll need the supporting cast to make shots, either to create space for the Davis and James, or to punish defenses for clogging the paint.
Green was 12-for-44 (27%) from 3-point range over the Lakers’ first 11 games in Orlando. Caldwell-Pope was 5-for-23 (22%) from beyond the arc through Game 1 of the first round before finding his shot in Game 2. Kuzma shot well in the seeding games, but was 2-for-10 from beyond the arc through the first three games of this series. These are the three shooters that will spend the most time around Davis and James. Their own success is and will continue to be critical.
There will be ups and downs going forward. The Lakers can bring the defense every night, but the spotlight will remain on their shooting. It doesn’t need to be elite, but when it is, the Lakers are in good shape. They’re now 20-1 this season (with 13 of the wins having come by at least 15 points) when they’ve shot 40% or better on 3-pointers, and the only loss was their final seeding game, in which James played less than 15 minutes and Davis didn’t play at all.
The Film: Defense first
Winning ugly is also an option. From the way they defended over the first several minutes Monday, the Lakers weren’t counting on all the shots to fall. Davis, in particular, was a force defensively as Portland went scoreless on its first seven possessions.
“He was absolutely dominant to start this game tonight,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “He had several blocks, deflections, containment plays. He was just all over the place on the defensive end, and then he was making everything.”
Here are those first seven possessions for Portland:
Some things to note …
1. The Blazers aren’t exactly running through their set very crisply. It’s fair to wonder how tired their legs are in their 13th game in 25 days, with the first 10 of those having been within five points in the last five minutes. CJ McCollum rejects a Nurkic screen to stay away from Davis and Green sticks with him to contest a tough step-back.
2. Davis deflects a long Lillard pass. After the Blazers inbound, they get their only decent catch-and-shoot look of this sequence, but (after James helps on McCollum’s drive) Green does get out to contest Carmelo Anthony’s left-wing 3.
3. McCollum tries to drive by Davis. Block.
4. Vogel on Davis: “He had one play where he had two deflections on both sides of the guy he was guarding [Jusuf Nurkic], and then dove on the floor and got a loose ball and got us going on the break.”
5. JaVale McGee is up to keep Lillard from shooting off the screen from Hassan Whiteside, Davis rotates over to Whiteside on the roll, and Green sinks to Nurkic until McGee recovers. Anthony attacks the paint, but James stays with him to prevent an in-rhythm step-back attempt. Anthony’s double-clutch attempt is well contested.
6. Davis steps up to catch Whiteside’s roll down the middle of the lane, but fouls him on the shot. James immediately tells him to go straight up with his arms. Whiteside goes 0-for-2 from the line.
7. Anthony sets a screen at the elbow for Lillard, who squeezes through for a layup … which is blocked by Davis.
The Blazers’ spacing on that last possession was pretty poor, and Blazers coach Terry Stotts abandoned the two-center lineup shortly thereafter. Before Monday, Portland had been much better with both Nurkic and Whiteside on the floor than they’d been with only one of the two. But the first 4:50 of the first quarter was all we saw of the two-center look in Game 4 (Gary Trent Jr. started the second half instead of Whiteside), and Stotts could be done with it altogether.
The Blazers have faced elimination before. But that game was against the Brooklyn Nets. Game 5 on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, TNT) is against a 52-19 team that has suddenly found it’s groove, and there’s no word yet if Lillard will be available.
“It’s one game at a time,” Stotts said. “You can break out all the cliches, but we know what we’re up against when you’re down to a good team, 3-1.”
Stotts can hope (and probably expect) that the Lakers won’t shoot so well from the outside. But, whether or not Lillard plays, the Blazers’ own offense will continue to struggle if L.A. is locked in defensively. Game 4 was the Blazers’ best offensive game of the series, but the Lakers obviously took their foot off the gas pedal when they were up 38. Even with a 64-point half on Monday, the Blazers have been held under a point per possession in the series.
The Lakers could earn some time off with a win on Wednesday. They would next play the winner of the Houston-Oklahoma City series, which is tied 2-2 and won’t end until at least Friday. In regard to taking care of business, James was saying the right things.
“[Closing out] is the hardest game of a series,” he said, “because you know the team that you’re playing is desperate, and they’re going to give you every thing that they got, because they know that they can be sent home. So I come in with that same desperate mind set.”
After Game 1, that desperate feeling might have come from the way the Lakers were playing. Now, the concern might be more in the minds of other teams in their path.
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