When the Los Angeles Lakers took a 16-point lead with 8:12 left in the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, it seemed like they would cruise to a victory, like they did in 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 and 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, and in none of those would he 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 a running mate. That is the reason 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 a 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.”
Everything that orbits around that play helps explain why the James-Davis marriage is proving to be as fearsome as anyone with the Lakers could have dreamed.
First, James was miserable by his standards in the second half. He went 2-for-9 shooting and had just six points after halftime, with more turnovers (four) than assists (three). In the fourth quarter, as the Lakers’ offense wheezed and the Nuggets made another one of their comebacks, James spent more time complaining to the refs than scoring, as he went 1-for-6 from the field.
Davis made James’ rare playoff lapse fade to the background, as he scored 22 of his 31 points on 8-for-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 never happened 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 and Irving getting the look. James halted the huddle and changed the play, saying later that he “scratched” that idea.
Davis is such a complex player to guard that Denver coach Michael Malone put backup center Mason Plumlee in 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 decided they’d take advantage of Plumlee by running the faster Davis outside and leaving Plumlee 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 that this was the best policy. James doesn’t “scratch” plays for Davis — not even in their first year together, with Davis deeper in the playoffs than he has ever been.
Sensitive to criticism that they overpaid for Davis last year, when the Lakers 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 compares to Davis in a given night’s box score.
In this moment, as Davis celebrates the triumph and a brilliant second half that bailed out James, he seems 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
In May 2018, the last time LeBron James was in the playoffs, he made a declaration that surely confounded 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, in which he tossed 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 of days later at shootaround before Game 3, explaining that the shots didn’t just switch the scoreboard. They also 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 step-back 3 followed by a finger roll in transition — felt like more than five points because the Nuggets had jumped 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. James found moments that mattered.
The Nuggets, being the Nuggets, made a comeback. And James contributed to it, shooting 2-for-9 with four turnovers in the second half after going 8-for-11 with two 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 Davis had missed, Denver would’ve tied the series and added another incredible, confidence-boosting comeback to its postseason journey. But Davis made it, putting L.A. up 2-0 and just two wins 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 part of Denver’s identity in the Florida bubble, as the Nuggets have 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 that they have fallen into a 2-0 hole. In the first two rounds, Denver managed to tie the series before falling down 3-1.
In Game 2, 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 immediately sprinted back downcourt, 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 in Game 2 to try to slow down the Lakers’ transition game.
But the Nuggets didn’t get far with Jokic playing at someone else’s speed. When Jokic is at his brilliant best, he’s picking apart a defense at his methodical pace, and 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 the third quarter, which saw him start to dissect the Lakers’ defense, and with a furious, fourth-quarter rally in which he almost went toe-to-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, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 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 more than 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 for the Lakers.
When the Lakers opened a 70-54 lead with 8:12 left in the third, Denver went on a 21-8 run and got back into the game, with Jokic impacting play 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, he 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. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and PJ Dozier helped the Nuggets 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, the Nuggets played their best when they had to. An aggressive Jokic showed up 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 staring at a 3-0 hole for the first time with Jokic.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Since Gary Harris returned to the Nuggets’ lineup, PJ Dozier hasn’t seen much playing time. Dozier played in garbage time of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, when it was already clear the Lakers would run away with a win. He wasn’t on the floor for a second of the first half of Game 2.
But the Nuggets were outscored by 14 points in Harris’ 25 minutes in Game 2, as Denver’s starting shooting guard had only three points on 1-for-6 shooting. In Harris’ place, Michael Malone elected to play Dozier for just more than 14 minutes in the second half: the final two minutes and six seconds of the third quarter, when the Nuggets were able to close the Lakers’ once-commanding lead to four points, and the entire fourth quarter.
The good news for the Nuggets is that when Dozier — promoted from a two-way contract on June 30 — was on the floor, they outscored the Lakers by one point. A big part of the first-round Game 5 comeback against the Utah Jazz, Dozier was a spark that Malone was searching for on Sunday, as evidenced by his steal and block.
“I thought PJ was great,” Malone said after the game. “He gave us a bigger defender, made some big plays for us defensively.”
As Denver got more aggressive in the fourth quarter and took more trips to the free throw line, Dozier was a beneficiary of many whistles. The bad news was that he missed four of the five free throws he took in the final quarter.
“He feels awful about the missed free throws,” Malone said.
— Malika Andrews
Rob Pelinka’s Lakers two wins from NBA Finals
It was 14 months ago that 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. Then there were the questions about whether the Lakers hired the right coach in Frank Vogel. A month later, people wondered if the Lakers had given up too much in draft picks and young players to acquire Anthony Davis. Finally, there was Kawhi Leonard spurning the team to sign with the crosstown LA Clippers.
The same speculation continued — Pelinka was is in over his head.
What has transpired since is Vogel leading the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference and coaching in the All-Star Game.
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 minimum contracts, Pelinka pivoted to Plan B.
He used Davis and James as sounding boards 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 Pelinka built is two games away from the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
— Bobby Marks