The NBA playoffs is almost always a competition between which team can make the necessary adjustments at the most opportune moments. Talent almost always wins out in the end, but matchups, coverages and rotation choices matter. This means that coaching matters. And it definitely seemed like Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham stumbled upon a winning formula despite taking a 132-126 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the 2023 Western Conference Finals.
For much of the game, Nikola Jokic was having his way against the Lakers defense. Jokic, which many now believe should have won the 2023 MVP award, was exceptional on Tuesday night, dominating the glass, pinging the ball to his open teammates who couldn't seem to miss, and making the Lakers pay when they resort to single coverage. Through three quarters, Jokic had 34 points, as the Nuggets owned a double-digit lead for much of the contest.
In the fourth quarter, however, the Lakers put Rui Hachimura, the player they acquired for Kendrick Nunn and three second round picks, on Jokic as an attempt to relieve Anthony Davis of one-on-one defensive duties and make the most out of his impact as a help defender. And it worked; they held Jokic scoreless in the fourth quarter and the Lakers went on a spirited comeback that just fell short.
Thus, given Hachimura's immense two-way impact in 28 minutes of play, it's no surprise that Lakers fans are hoping for Darvin Ham to play the Japanese international more minutes, and perhaps even insert him into the starting lineup.
Now Darvin Ham has to start Hachimura on Joker and bank on the Nuggets cooling off from 3 (15-32 tonight including some ridiculous prayers by Joker and Jamal). Much to like from this loss if you're a Lakers fan.
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) May 17, 2023
A win is a win, but if I’m Denver, I treat this like a loss. Lakers really figured something out putting Hachimura on Jokic. That’s one of those somewhat small adjustments that can win a series.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) May 17, 2023
IF RUI HACHIMURA DONT START NEXT GAME BRUH I WILL FIND DARVIN HAM MYSELF
— . (@6ixImmortal) May 17, 2023
Also someone tell coach ham to insert Rui Hachimura in the starting lineup for Game 2 #Lakeshow
— Janet (@Slimjaneyyy) May 17, 2023
Rui Hachimura HAS to start Game 2 and the rest of the series for the Lakers.
Rui at the 4 and Anthony Davis at the 5 is the solution to slowing down Nikola Jokic.
What an effort from Hachimura on both ends of the floor in this Game 1.
— Noah Camras (@noahcamras) May 17, 2023
Some may be thinking that Rui Hachimura's admirable defensive performance on Nikola Jokic may be a one-off, and the Nuggets will be able to figure that coverage out sooner than later. Nevertheless, other teams have tried this tactic before against the Nuggets, and the Lakers are simply hoping that they can replicate it to maximum effect.
As one would recall, the Philadelphia 76ers, back in a regular season game in January, put Joel Embiid on Aaron Gordon, with PJ Tucker taking on Jokic duties in the post. Embiid and Anthony Davis' impact as help defenders aren't too dissimilar, so certainly, the Lakers will be smart to try and throw this defensive look towards the Nuggets from minute one to prevent them from getting into the rhythm they got into to start Game 1.