When the Los Angeles Lakers took a 16-point lead with 8:12 left in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, it seemed like they would cruise to a victory, similar to Game 1.
But the Nuggets kept playing, cutting the Los Angeles lead to 82-78 entering the fourth quarter. After a Nikola Jokic hook shot, Denver took a one-point lead with one possession to defend.
Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beater gave the Lakers a 105-103 win to take a 2-0 series lead, but it was quite a way to get to the end. Our experts submit their takeaways after two games between the Nuggets and Lakers.
Anthony Davis leaves a legacy against Nikola Jokic
LeBron James had played in 54 conference finals games heading into Sunday night, and in none of those would he ever have walked away with a victory the way he played in the second half of his 55th.
But until now, James didn’t have the type of all-encompassing force that is Anthony Davis as running mate. That is the reason why the Los Angeles Lakers won Game 2 over the Denver Nuggets.
Davis made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, flashing out to the wing and stepping back to launch the gorgeous arcing bomb, and that sure is the headline.
“This is what they brought me here for,” Davis said moments later on the TNT broadcast, “to make big plays.”
But there is everything that orbits around that play that explains why having a James-Davis marriage is proving to be as fearsome as anyone with the Lakers could have dreamed.
First off, James was miserable by his standards in the second half. He went 2-of-9 on shooting and had just 6 points after halftime with more turnovers (4) than assists (3). In the fourth quarter, as the Lakers’ offense wheezed and the Nuggets made one of their classic comebacks, James spent more time complaining to the refs than scoring as he went 1-of-6 from the field.
Davis, however, made James’ rare playoff lapse fade to the background as he scored 22 of his 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting in the second half. He scored 10 in the last five minutes, nailing two enormous 3-pointers.
Second, Davis was so good that it allowed James to be a decoy on the final play.
It’s not that this hasn’t happened before — James stood in the corner and never touched the ball when Kyrie Irving made his famous 3 in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals — but it just never would happen on a last-second shot.
In 2015, then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt tried to draw up a play with 1.5 seconds left in a road playoff game against the Chicago Bulls with James as decoy, with Irving getting the look. James halted the huddle and changed the play, saying later he “scratched” that idea.
Davis is such a complex player to guard, Denver coach Michael Malone put in backup center Mason Plumlee to guard Davis with 2.1 seconds left because he was afraid of a lob at the rim. Rajon Rondo, the triggerman inbounding the ball, saw the switch and instantly decided they’d take advantage of Plumlee and run the faster Davis outside and leave him in the dust.
“[Rondo] made the right read,” James said on Spectrum SportsNet. “I definitely was thinking the ball was coming to me but AD broke open behind me.”
Rondo didn’t have to consult with James; everyone understood this was the best policy. James doesn’t “scratch” plays for Davis. Even in their first year together with Davis deeper in the playoff pool than he’s ever been before.
Sensitive to criticism that they overpaid in the trade for Davis last year when they sent three young players including All-Star Brandon Ingram, three first-round picks and pick swap rights to the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers and their fans like to question how any of those assets compared to Davis in that night’s box score.
In this moment, as Davis celebrated the triumph and a brilliant second half that bailed out James, he felt like a bargain at twice the price.
“We leaned on him, especially in the fourth quarter,” James said. “And he brought us home.”
— Brian Windhorst
Another fast start for LeBron James
Back in May 2018, the last time LeBron James was in the playoffs, he made a declaration that surely confounded the statistical formulas relied upon by analytics acolytes everywhere: “Two points ain’t two points. That’s a lie. Two points is not two points.”
He was coming off one of the more impressive playoff games in his career, tossing in an array of tough, fadeaway jumpers in a 43-point performance to go up 2-0 on Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He made that statement a couple days later at shootaround before Game 3, explaining that those shots didn’t just switch the scoreboard, they squelched the spirit of the Raptors.
In Sunday’s Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Denver, that quote from James came to mind when he scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half. It wasn’t about degree of difficulty so much as importance of the moment.
When he scored the first 12 points of the game for Los Angeles, his last five points of that run — a stepback 3, followed by a finger roll in transition — felt like more than five points because the Nuggets had jumped out to a 12-7 lead and were threatening to control the tone.
It carried over in the second quarter. His 3 with 8:18 increased L.A.’s lead from two to five. When Denver scored on the next possession to get it back to three, James cut back door and scored at the rim to push it to five again. Los Angeles went on a 12-1 run from there to build its biggest lead of the game. He found moments that mattered.
The Nuggets, being the Nuggets, made a comeback. And James contributed to it, certainly, shooting 2-for-9 with 4 turnovers in the second half after going 8-for-11 with 2 turnovers in the first half.
But, his words still rang true. Trailing Denver 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left, Rajon Rondo threw a baseline inbounds pass to Anthony Davis on the wing for a game-winning 3 at the buzzer.
If he misses, Denver ties up the series and adds another incredible confidence-boosting comeback to their postseason journey. But he made it, putting L.A. up 2-0, just two wins away from the NBA Finals.
Sometimes three points ain’t three points either.
— Dave McMenamin
Nuggets in a hole again, but it’s different this time
Being doubted and overlooked has become a part of Denver’s identity in the Florida bubble, as they’ve bounced back from one seemingly insurmountable series deficit after another. Jamal Murray’s assertion that they play their best basketball with their backs against the wall has become a team rallying cry.
“Well, we actually did petition the league to see if we could just get right to it and start 3-1 down,” coach Michael Malone joked before the conference finals began. “But that was shot down.”
Playing from behind isn’t new to the Nuggets. Their loss to the Lakers on Sunday, though, marks the first time they’ve fallen into a 2-0 hole. In the first two rounds, Denver has managed to tie the series before falling down 3-1.
And this time, it came down to the last shot.
“There’s no silver lining,” Malone said after the game. “This is the Western Conference finals. The message is: We’re down 2-0. We’ll go out and win Game 3.”
— Malika Andrews
The Nikola Jokic experience
After several trips to the free throw line in the second quarter, Nikola Jokic would immediately sprint back down court even though the ball wasn’t in play yet.
No one could blame Jokic after the Los Angeles Lakers looked like they were running laps around the Nuggets at times in their Game 1 blowout win. Michael Malone made it a priority to try to slow down the Lakers’ transition game.
But the Nuggets didn’t get this far with Jokic playing at someone else’s pace. When Jokic is at his brilliant best, he’s picking apart a defense at his methodical pace, one in which no one can speed him up or slow him down.
The Serbian big man did his best to try to even this best of seven Western Conference Finals in a third quarter that saw him start to dissect the Lakers’ defense and then a furious fourth-quarter rally where he almost went toe-for-toe with Anthony Davis. But unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic did not have the ball in his hands at the end. It was in Davis’ hands, and the Lakers’ All-Star big man drilled the game-winning 3 with Jokic flying at him to hand the Nuggets a 105-103 loss and a 2-0 hole in this series.
Jokic did all he could, finishing with 30 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. Jokic scored 11 points in the final 2:42 to nearly steal Game 2 for the Nuggets.
After he was effectively taken out of Game 1 by foul trouble when he picked up his third personal with over seven minutes left in the first half, Jokic found himself living at the free throw line in the second quarter of Game 2. He went 8-for-8 from the line to slow the pace down for the Lakers.
And when the Lakers opened up a 70-54 with 8:12 in third, Denver went on a 21-8 run and got back into the game with Jokic impacting the game the way the Nuggets need him to.
Finally able to get some favorable switches onto smaller defenders, Jokic was able to draw double teams and expose them with his passing. Finding open or cutting teammates, Jokic had five assists in the third quarter and Denver went into the fourth down by just four.
Michael Malone gave Jokic a much-deserved breather to start the fourth after the center played the entire third. And Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and PJ Dozier helped the Nuggets actually briefly take an 87-86 lead with 7:26 left. But the Lakers buried four 3-pointers and pushed the lead to 100-92 with 3:03 left.
But as Denver has done all postseason long, the Nuggets played their best when they had to. An aggressive Jokic showed up just when things looked bleak. Davis had the last shot and the last word. Now Jokic has to find a way to respond in Game 3, or the Nuggets will find themselves perhaps staring at a 3-0 hole for the first time under Jokic.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Rob Pelinka’s Lakers two wins from NBA Finals
It was 14 months ago when Lakers GM Rob Pelinka was used as a public piñata.
It started with the public humiliation on ESPN’s First Take by his former boss Magic Johnson. From there, it was the questions about whether the Lakers hired the right coach in Frank Vogel. A month later, it was whether the Lakers had given up too much in draft picks and young players to acquire Anthony Davis. And finally, it was Kawhi Leonard spurning them to sign with the crosstown LA Clippers.
The same speculation continued — Pelinka was is in over his head.
What has transpired since is that Vogel would lead the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference and coach in the All-Star Game.
Frank Vogel explains why he likened Anthony Davis’ game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2 to a shot that Kobe Bryant would’ve made.
Davis was named first team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense, while finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year and fifth in MVP.
As for losing Leonard to the Clippers?
Instead of having Davis, LeBron James and Leonard (yes, it would have been formidable) with a bench of players on a minimum contract, Pelinka pivoted to a Plan B.
He would use Davis and James as a sounding board on all free agent decisions.
“We were doing constant calls about, ‘What do you think of this or this player?'” Davis told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin before the season started. “Rob was almost like a stalking girlfriend. He was an agent, so he’s played both sides. He knows that in order for stuff to work, the players have to be involved. And he tried to make sure that LeBron and I were involved as much as possible. During free agency, every decision I got a text or a call, even just two minutes, ‘Look, this is going on. … How do you feel? OK, cool.'”
The $32 million in cap space that was designed for Leonard was used to sign Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and JaVale McGee. Veterans Rajon Rondo and Jared Dudley signed for the veteran minimum exception. Former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard came on board for a non-guaranteed minimum contract.
A year after being a punchline, the team that Pelinka built is now two games away from the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
— Bobby Marks