Anthony Davis sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to seal L.A.’s Game 2 win on Sunday, putting L.A. up 2-0 over the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets were down by as many as 16 points but they out-scored the Lakers 24-12 over the final eight minutes of the third quarter, cutting their deficit to four points before the final frame. Denver then took the lead with 7:24 left in the fourth quarter and had the lead going into the final possession, but AD spoiled their comeback attempt with his clutch triple over the out-stretched arm of Nikola Jokic. Yet another fantastic finish for a playoff game in the Orlando bubble. Let’s Dose.
Before this game was played, LeBron James voiced his displeasure about losing the MVP award to Giannis Antetokounmpo, receiving 16 first-place votes to Giannis’ 86 first-place votes. “It pissed me off because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes,” he said. “That’s what pissed me off more than anything.” In Game 1 it felt like LeBron was sending a message with his play, giving himself some extra energy and motivation to beat the Nuggets and get one step closer to another Finals appearance. He was terrific again tonight with 26 points (10-of-20 FGs, 3-of-4 FTs), 11 rebounds, four assists, three 3-pointers and two blocks, and the only flaw was six turnovers.
One factor to consider for DFS purposes is that LeBron’s minutes have been down a bit in the playoffs. He averaged 34.6 minutes during the regular season but is at 33.9 minutes in the postseason. That’s partly due to the fact that L.A. has been up big in the fourth quarter of multiple games, but also by design from coach Frank Vogel. “This [championship run] is a marathon,” he said, “and we need [James] throughout the whole series and hopefully the next if we advance.” LBJ has never averaged fewer than 38.2 minutes in any of his postseasons, so the diminished run is glaring. If called upon to play 40 minutes, I have zero doubt that he’d be up for the challenge, but for now DFS managers should recognize that his ceiling is a bit lower than it was even during the regular season.
The Lakers didn’t start Dwight Howard for Game 2, despite his energetic performance in L.A.’s series-opening victory. He started the second half of Game 1 in place of an ineffective JaVale McGee, but coach Frank Vogel opted to stick with his usual lineup. Howard finished with three points, two rebounds and one steal in a mere 13 minutes on Sunday, and his low playing time was attributable to foul trouble (five fouls). Nikola Jokic made a point of getting more physical with Howard whenever he was in the game, and it paid off — the Joker had 22 points, six boards and two assists in Game 1, but finished Game 2 with 30/9/4.
Vogel wouldn’t necessarily commit to starting McGee next to Anthony Davis for the rest of the series, saying, “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.” Considering the Lakers have won two games in this series with McGee as a starter, with McGee and Dwight averaging a combined 26.0 minutes per game, it’s not overly important which guy starts.
L.A.’s depth has been on full display this postseason, with their two superstars getting solid help from different supporting cast members each game. Markieff Morris came in 7-of-8 from downtown over the past two games, and suggested he’s only going to improve as he plays more with his relatively new Lakers teammates. “Just repetition, same thing over and over every day, being out on the court a little bit more, figuring out how to play with the guys that I’m on the court with, finding my sweet spots,” Morris said. “But I shot 40% when I was in Detroit from the three, so it’s really nothing new.” He was a non-entity in Game 2 with zero points in nine minutes, and most of his damage comes when Anthony Davis is playing center and he’s at PF, or when he’s logging small-ball minutes as a center himself. Neither of those scenarios are likely against the Nuggets, with Jokic as their focal point, so Morris is a poor DFS target unless L.A. makes it to the Finals.
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Kyle Kuzma has been relatively quiet this postseason but he did shoot 55.6% from the field vs. the Rockets in the semifinals, and he made 5-of-8 shots in Game 1 vs. Denver. He had some bad turnovers on Sunday (four total) and didn’t play great defense vs. Michael Porter Jr. (15 points), with whom he seemed to have a personal tit-for-tat throughout the game. Alex Caruso was terrific, scoring nine points on 3-of-6 FGs and 2-of-2 FTs with two rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 29 minutes. He said that he thrives alongside LeBron James because they’re both “high IQ players,” and if you watched this game it’d be hard to disagree. His pesky defense changed a ton of possessions in the Lakers’ favor and helped stave off numerous runs from Denver, and he was even more impactful than the stat-sheet reflects.
From a DFS perspective, beyond the obvious pairing of James and Davis, managers may want to target Caruso, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green. The veteran Green had 19.2% usage in Game 1, fourth-highest of any rotation player for the Lakers, and his salary is typically low-end. Gambling on Rondo is simply due to his ability to contribute dimes, steals and boards off the bench, compensating for his low usage and scoring (Rondo is averaging 9.0 dimes in 21.5 minutes through two games vs. the Nuggets). I shy away from Kuzma because he offers so little beyond scoring, and his salary tends to be prohibitive compared to his actual production. In Yahoo and FanDuel DFS leagues in Game 2, Kuzma produced a cringe-worthy total of 9.1 fantasy points.
The Nuggets have come back from two consecutive 3-1 holes this postseason, an unbelievable accomplishment, but they’re not making it easy on themselves. The teams they came back against didn’t have LeBron James and Davis. and there were moments in this game when Denver simply looked tired. To their credit, Denver put together some impressive runs and had control of the game until the bitter end, when AD made his aforementioned buzzer-beater.
The Nuggets’ aggression helped them stave off some big deficits, going 25-of-33 at the free-throw line. Coming in this game they’d averaged 19.7 free throws per game in the postseason. That’s the lowest of any playoff team, even though it would have ranked fifth overall during the regular season. The style of play gets more physical in the playoffs, and perhaps the lack of fans lets the refs use their whistles more freely, but whatever the root cause it’s clear that free throws are way up in the Orlando bubble. In fact, for the full regular season the most free throw attempts per game by any team was 20.8. Since the season resumed, though, there are eleven teams that averaged 20.8 or more free throws. It’s a trend worth noting if the NBA needs to play all or part of the 2020-21 season in one or more bubble-type environments, as it plays to the strengths of some players more than others.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone was focused on his team’s transition defense after giving up 16 fastbreak points in Game 1. “If this is a track and field event, we are going to lose,” Malone said. “We have to get back, slow them down, hit them and make them try to play in the half court as much as possible.” By the end of Sunday’s game, the Lakers had scored a mere eight points in transition, so Malone’s coaching staff obviously got the message across to players. The Nuggets weren’t better themselves, though, scoring a mere five points in transition.
Nikola Jokic scored 11 straight points for Denver down the stretch of this game. He hit a 3-pointer, had a tip-in, backed-down Anthony Davis in the post…there’s nothing he can’t do. He had only two assists in the first game of this series, as mentioned above, but tonight he handed out nine dimes. He also scored 30 points, shooting 9-of-20 from the field and 11-of-12 from the line with six rebounds and four steals. The steals were a career-high. His lone 3-pointer was enormous, coming with 1:04 left to bring Denver within one point in the fourth quarter, and he miraculously tapped in Jamal Murray’s airball to give Denver a brief lead in the final minute.
P.J. Dozier was a surprise part of the Nuggets’ rotation in Game 2. His contributions were more impactful than the boxscore shows — three points, one rebound, one assist, one steal and one block in 14 minutes. At a critical moment in the fourth quarter, Dozier took on Anthony Davis in isolation and scored an and-one bucket, then flexed like he owned the court. Prior to that he found Mason Plumlee for an alley-oop assist, and his defensive skills were on full display including a charge drawn on LeBron James with under five minutes remaining in a close game. Malone knew his team needed an infusion of energy to mount yet another comeback tonight, and he found it in Dozier. The bad news is that Dozier missed four free throws during a critical second-half stretch, but it’ll still be hard for Malone to keep Dozier out of the lineup for Game 3 on Tuesday. He stayed on the court in crunch time, and DFS managers should consider him as a lottery ticket in tournaments for Game 3 on Tuesday. His emergence is bad news for Monte Morris (nine points, one rebound, zero assists in 13 minutes).
There wasn’t much news elsewhere in the Association, but let’s conclude with a quick roundup. Gordon Hayward’s return gave the Celtics the spark they needed on Saturday, picking up their first series win in Game 3, and it looks like his ankle held up fine — expect him to play a full allotment of minutes in Game 4. In fact, he’s the second player in franchise history to average 17+ points on at least 50% shooting, 6.0+ rebounds and 4.0+ assists. Larry Bird is the only other Celtic to achieve that level of efficiency, and he did it five times. He was excellent at both ends on Saturday and gives Boston a massive infusion of talent for a second unit that had been struggling. Given that his minutes are likely to be monitored, and Boston won Game 3 with him coming off the bench, it stands to reason that he’ll play a sixth-man role again on Monday.
The Cavaliers will soon begin their ‘bubble camp’, but they’ll do so without Andre Drummond, Tristan Thompson or Matthew Dellavedova. It’s a personal absence for Drummond, while TT and Delly have little to gain by participating and a ton to lose as impending free agents. Thompson is still 29 years old and he may have resuscitated his value by averaging 12.0 points, 10.1 boards, 2.1 assists and 0.9 blocks in 30.2 minutes this season. Still, the market for a backup center who can’t shoot outside the paint or hit free throws is likely to be skimpy. Dellavedova is just a locker-room type guy at this point, bringing energy off the bench as needed. It would require an absolutely ideal situation for either veteran to have fantasy value in 2020-21.