The Nuggets’ self-inflicted wounds, and a lesson they can learn from the Lakers before Game 2

If you would like to infuriate someone, show any basketball coach not named Frank Vogel this clip of the Denver Nuggets giving up a wide-open 3-pointer after a missed free throw: 

To further aggravate the coach, share this clip of Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso going coast to coast and getting to the free throw line after a made free throw, and be sure to mention that it happened on the very next possession:

Players and coaches love to say that every possession matters in the playoffs, but the Nuggets didn’t play like it in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Friday. They had a 38-36 lead at the end of the first quarter, then came undone with a string of live-ball turnovers and terrible transition defense. 

An uncharacteristic giveaway by Monte Morris leads to Dwight Howard getting fouled on the break:

A seemingly simple pass from Gary Harris to Nikola Jokic leads to an alley-oop from Caruso to LeBron James:

Kyle Kuzma gets into the paint for a floater with 20 seconds on the shot clock, running off a made layup:

Nobody notices Anthony Davis leaking out after contesting Michael Porter Jr.’s 3, and Davis gets to the free throw line line off one of James’ patented hit-ahead passes:

The whole league knows that James loves to throw that pass and Davis is his favorite target. When I wrote about those plays in February, Lakers guard Avery Bradley called them “demoralizing” for the opponent because preventing them is always a point of emphasis on the scouting report. Naturally, they’re also energizing for Los Angeles. Free points! 

The day before the game, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said they had gone over the Lakers’ plays, but everything starts with making them play against a set defense. “They are the best running team in the NBA,” Malone said, adding that, “if this is a track and field event, we’re going to lose.” After the 126-124 loss, he predictably lamented that they continually coughed up the ball and failed to get back in transition. 

At halftime, Denver was arguably lucky to trail by only 11 points, given that the Lakers had taken 24 free throws in the second quarter alone and missed 10 of them. As resilient as the Nuggets have proved to be, it is difficult to mount a comeback when you are gifting the other team fast-break opportunities. Typically, Denver’s offense is a beautiful blend of improvisation and precision — it was ninth in turnover rate in the regular season, an impressive feat considering all the passing and player movement — but, in Game 1, the Nuggets couldn’t get out of their own way. 

The third quarter featured a five-point swing when Paul Millsap missed an uncontested layup and, five seconds later, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made an uncontested 3:

When James went to the bench, Davis did his best impression of him:

Pregame, Malone said the Nuggets felt like they’ve seen everything a team can throw at them in their 14 playoff games. “The Utah Jazz got very aggressive with Jamal Murray, the Clippers got really aggressive with both Jamal and Nikola,” he said, and Denver knows how to react to different coverages. Undeniably, though, it looked unprepared for Los Angeles’ physicality, athleticism and pace. Through three quarters, the Lakers had scored 50 points in the paint and rebounded 40 percent of their misses. 

Murray said it was “completely different” to playing against the Clippers. In Game 2, he said, the Nuggets must be more physical, “try to hit them early” and get out and run more often themselves. 

“Even after made baskets, we were trying to get matched up and everything. We’ve just got to be better. We’ve just got to be on point. We have to talk more, talk earlier, point, whatever we gotta do. We’re going to be crossmatched at times, but as long as we keep a body in front and trust our rotations, we should be all right.”

Jokic put it simply: Their mindset should be “get back, get back, get back,” he said.

The silver lining is that Denver understands that many of its wounds were self-inflicted. The Nuggets showed they can score against one of the league’s best defenses, but that was obscured by the Lakers’ parade of fast breaks, free throws and alley-oops. No one should doubt this particular team’s ability to bounce back after poor games, and Denver can even learn a lesson from its opponent.  

After the Lakers lost the first game of their second-round series, James compared the Houston Rockets to the early-2000s St. Louis Rams. “The Greatest Show on Turf: People always said how they would scout ’em, scout ’em and scout ’em,” he said, “until they got on the field and they seen Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and Marshall Faulk and Az Hakim and all those guys,  and then it was like, ‘OK, we need to play them again.’ There’s no way you can simulate that speed. So getting out on the floor and having a Game 1 gives you a good feel for it.”

The Nuggets knew what was coming. Feeling it is another thing entirely. 

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