The first two games of the Western Conference Finals have been a rude awakening for the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers came into this series with the top seeded Denver Nuggets having won their first two Game 1s this postseason, both on the road, against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. This was not the case versus Denver as the Nuggets led by as much as 21 points in the Western Conference Finals opener before holding off a late Los Angeles rally to take a 132-126 win.
Come Game 2, the Lakers were expected to bounce back and they were on track to do so. They led by as much as 11 points on two separate occasions in the second and third quarters, before eventually faltering in the final period.
Denver flipped the switch in the fourth quarter, breaking open a close game with a flurry of three-pointers that allowed them to take a 108-103 victory in Game 2 which put them up 2-0 in this best-of-seven series.
What was most concerning about Los Angeles’ performance in Game 2 was not necessarily their defense, but rather the subpar play of their stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the 38-year-old James finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists, four steals, and two blocks, he showed his age on quite a few possessions over the contest.
James missed three makeable lay-ups over the course of the evening, with the most crucial miss coming with 26.4 seconds to go in the contest where a made basket would have trimmed the Nuggets’ lead to just two points.
In addition, following a Game 1 where he missed all four of his three-point attempts, the 19-time NBA All-Star went 0-for-6 on threes in Game 2 for his worst shooting night from distance since 2008.
Moreover, three of James’ three-point misses in Game 2 came during a pivotal five-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. The Lakers led by two points, 81-79, early in the final period prior to Denver going on a key run where they built a 12-point edge, 96-84, with 5:37 remaining on the game clock.
What made James’ poor shooting in that span of time even more puzzling was that he, one of the smartest basketball players in the history of the NBA, took each of those shots with over 14 seconds left on the shot clock.
James’ cold spell ultimately led to Los Angeles’ defeat as they built too big of a hole for themselves to climb out of in the fourth quarter.
The blame for the loss does not solely rest on James though. Anthony Davis continued his inconsistent play, posting a dud in Game 2 after a dominant series opener. Davis posted 40 points on 14-of-23 shooting, 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks in Game 1, yet could not carry over his momentum to Game 2 where he made only four-of-15 shots en route to an 18-point and 14-rebound evening.
Despite their pair of disappointing losses at the Nuggets’ Ball Arena, the Lakers still cannot be counted out with the series shifting to the Crypto.com Arena. Los Angeles has gone 7-0 at home in these playoffs dating back to their win in the play-in versus the Minnesota Timberwolves and it is clear that the home court advantage holds true for this team.
The Lakers may have to trim their rotation in the coming games to keep their hopes in this series alive though as Game 2 starters D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt were quite ineffective in the loss. Furthermore, their surprise hero of the prior round, Lonnie Walker IV, has been unable to find his rhythm on offense so far against Denver and may need to be reserved for “emergency” situations only moving forward.
Los Angeles may have a tall task ahead of them to get back in this series, yet it remains a fool’s errand to count them out. James may not be the player he was a few years ago, but he has proven in this postseason that he can still put up a vintage performance from time to time which makes this Laker team impossible to count out.
Game 3 is virtually a must-win for Los Angeles and it will be compelling to see what version of this team shows up in front of their raucous home crowd.