One of the biggest storylines heading into the Western Conference finals was how and when Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel would deploy centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Neither big man saw meaningful minutes following Game 3 of the Lakers’ five-game series win over the small-ball Houston Rockets, but Vogel suggested he’d utilize both of them against Denver Nuggets All-NBA center Nikola Jokic.
That was the case in the Lakers’ 126-114 Game 1 victory on Friday, with McGee starting and Howard making his first appearance in the second quarter. Howard made an immediate impact, which led to Vogel starting him instead of McGee in the second half. Howard finished with 13 points, three rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 16 minutes, while McGee went scorelesss with no rebounds and four fouls in 11 minutes.
Given the disparity, it’s not much of a surprise that Vogel said on Saturday that he’s “considering” starting Howard over McGee in Sunday’s Game 2, but won’t reveal his decision until lineups are announced prior to tipoff.
“You try Plan A first and see how that works and how that plays out, and then it’s a case-by-case, game-by-game, series-by-series type of evaluation,” Vogel said. “I won’t submit any decisions until the morning of game day. We’ll have a postgame feeling of where we are at, how I feel about it. We’ll watch the tape, measure it again the next day, have an idea of where we are going without putting it in cement, and then sleep on that next night and wake up the next morning with a plan.”
Vogel said after the Game 1 win that he liked Howard’s “energy” and “great physical presence,” which is something he believes the Lakers need in this series. Howard was aggressive offensively, getting to the free throw line eight times (making five) and using his verticality to catch a couple of lobs, including one from Rajon Rondo off of this set play in the third quarter.
Defensively, Howard only spent about three minutes guarding Jokic, who was in foul trouble for most of night, and Jokic went 3-for-4 with seven points during that stretch, according to NBA.com matchup data. Jokic went 2-for-5 against McGee, and both Lakers center blocked Jokic once at the rim. In two minutes with Anthony Davis guarding him, the Nuggets All-Star only attempted one shot and dished out one assist.
“They were playing small, and then when they inserted Dwight into the game, I thought his size, his physicality, his athleticism, he made a huge contribution to their game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the loss. “He gave them great energy on both ends of the floor. … So he came in, did a good job on Nikola. He’s guarded Nikola well in the past. And give him credit. He was ready to go tonight and he helped impact the game for them.”
We’ll see whether Howard did enough to earn the start in Game 2, which is set for 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.