The Los Angeles Lakers were optimistic after dropping Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals to the Denver Nuggets.
They were outscored by 18 in the first half but clawed to within three in the final minute. The comeback was made possible by Darvin Ham's call to move Rui Hachimura (17 points) onto Nikola Jokic. The two-time MVP finished with a comical 34 points, 21 rebounds, and 14 assists, but he had no field goals and only three points in the fourth quarter. Anthony Davis shifted onto Aaron Gordon and played free safety — a role he played against the Nuggets in 2020, when the Lakers employed Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
“Something that we just went to, a little adjustment,” said AD. “We did end up liking it. Stayed with it for a while. Maybe something we go to in Game 2. … But, just thinking about it right now, just something we like — to also have me roaming.”
For the most part, Darvin Ham has pushed the right buttons in his first playoff run as a head coach. The Hachimura adjustment nearly flipped a game the Lakers had no business winning. But Ham mistakenly played another card too early, which arguably cost Los Angeles the chance to capitalize on rest (before the every-other-day cadence kicks in) and steal Game 1 on the road for the third consecutive series.
Ham started the three-guard lineup featuring Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves alongside Davis and LeBron James. The decision was understandable: Schroder/DLo/Reaves lineups had a team-high +14.3 net rating in the playoffs. Ham hoped to counteract the Nuggets' size with quickness, spacing, and shooting.
It worked in Game 6 vs. the Golden State Warriors. It backfired in Game 1 vs. Denver. The Nuggets easily overwhelmed the Lakers in the first half, especially on the glass. Ham insisted that effort was the true culprit, but his players acknowledged size disparity.
“It’s different than last series,” noted Rui. “(The Warriors) were very small and quick and had a lot of shooters. This series, the point guard is 6’6. Everybody is 6’10, 6’8.”
“I think some of them were effort and some of them are about size,” LeBron said about the first-half rebounding.
“AD would go try to block a shot or contest a shot, and, as much as I tried, me boxing out Jokić is not an easy task,” added Austin Reaves. “So, just gives us a little bit more size to kind of play a couple of different ways and keep AD to where he can go block shots as well as rebound. I like what we’ve seen from that group.”
Naturally, a starting lineup change is expected for Game 2. Most likely, Ham will insert Hachimura, whom the Lakers prepped to guard Jokic before the series began. At 6'8, 230, Rui possesses a combination of bulkiness and offensive versatility — unlike Jarred Vanderbilt, who played 10 minutes on Tuesday — that can, at least, make the Joker sweat. Having Davis roam off Gordon (a mediocre shooter) enables the Lakers' wings to stick tighter on ball-handlers and aggressively navigate screens, knowing AD has their back if they get beat.
“There’s no one person that’s going to stop him,” Ham said about slowing Jokic. “It has to be done by committee. … You have to switch up matchups at times and you have to switch up coverages. We didn’t want to go too deep into the end-game adjustments. It’s still that ultimate chess game. So we were comfortable with the results. Gave us a chance to get back into the game, and it’s one of the things we know if we need to go back to it, it’s there.”
“That's why they pay me the big bucks,” added Davis. “I got to figure it out. And I got to help everybody. That's my job on this team, to help everyone defensively, protect guys.”
The Nuggets will be ready. They've spent years preparing for this.
“As a team, we've seen everything there is to see on how teams will try to guard Nikola,” said Michael Porter Jr. “It might have surprised us for a little bit in that late second half, but looking at the film, I don't think that that'll be an issue for us. Next thing we know how to counter that when they put AD off ball and AD is roaming a little bit, it opens up some stuff on the backside, so we just got to execute.”
“There's this kind of discussion being based (on Rui on Jokic), even though the Lakers lost, they're walking out of here, they think they've got something,” said Michael Malone. “I'll bet you every red penny I have that Darvin Ham would rather be up 1-0 than down 0-1.
Starting Rui is an easy play. Who he replaces poses a trickier conundrum.
Ideally, the Lakers would sub out Russell. DLo scored eight points on 4-for-11 shooting and was a team-worst -25 in Game 1. He played eight minutes in the second half and mostly watched as the Lakers clawed back — not for the first time in the playoffs. Russell is a defensive minus who carries no use unless he's cooking offensively. (Malone is trying to goad Russell into playing outside the offense.) Jamal Murray (31 points) hunted him, while Jokic deftly passed around him.
The matchup data had these makes as D'Angelo Russell as the defender.
Whew buddy. pic.twitter.com/gKQJkhDJr2
— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) May 17, 2023
Reaves, AD, and LeBron are locks to start. Schroder has often been more valuable than Russell. He has Ham's trust. But, the Lakers are reportedly concerned they'll “lose” DLo if he's — to reference the Russell Westbrook era — realigned. The 27-year-old is an impending free agent seeking $100+ million. He's already played at Crypto in front of fellow FA Kyrie Irving and Klutch client Trae Young during these playoffs.
Schroder came off the bench in 50 of his 66 appearances this season. It's the smoother move. If Russell struggles in Game 2, though, things could get bumpy.