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Denver Nuggets

5 adjustments Nuggets must make to pull off a 3rd straight 3-1 comeback

After falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Denver Nuggets find themselves looking up from the depths of a 3-1 hole — again.

That’s right… again. For whatever reason, the Nuggets have trailed by a count of 3-1 in each of their playoff series’ in this campaign. Impressively, though, Denver has managed to stave off elimination seven times in the bubble, defeating the Utah Jazz in the first round and the L.A. Clippers in the second. Can they do it again? Can the Nuggets overcome yet another 3-1 deficit in the postseason?

In this piece, we’ll lay out five adjustments that Denver should consider making ahead of Saturday’s pivotal Game 5 matchup.

Too much charity

Though the number of free throws that each team has taken in this series is fairly even to this point, there was a big discrepancy in Game 4. The Lakers, who reportedly wrote a letter to the NBA about the lack of fouls called in their favor, finished Thursday night’s game with 35 shots at the stripe, making 28 of them. That number was up from Game 3, when Los Angeles had 22 attempts at the free throw line.

Meanwhile, Denver finished Game 4 with 23 shots at the line, of which they made 20.

If the Nuggets are truly hoping to keep themselves alive in Game 5, they’ll need to limit the Lakers’ trips to the stripe. Simply put, Anthony Davis and LeBron James cannot be allowed to take a combined 28 shots at the line.

“They went to the foul line 35 times,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after Game 4, via ESPN. “I think I’m going to have to go through the proper channels like they did to see if we can figure out how we can get some more free throws.”

Nuggets Crash the boards

Rebounding is a fundamental element of basketball. Without it, there are no fast breaks or second chance points — a fact the Nuggets learned in Game 4.

As a team, the Nuggets finished Thursday night’s matchup with 33 rebounds. The Lakers, meanwhile, pulled down 41. That difference doesn’t seem too bad until you look closer. Denver had just six offensive boards, while Los Angeles had 12, leading to 25 second-chance points. Furthermore, the Nuggets shot 59 percent in the first half, but the Lakers had an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points.

The Joker strikes back

On most nights, Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic is good for at least 20 and 10. In Game 4, however, The Joker finished with just 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting (2-of-3 from beyond the arc) and seven rebounds. He did have four assists and two steals as well, but it was clear that he was having an off night.

What happened, you ask?

One reason for Nikola’s struggles could be the Lakers’ decision to start Dwight Howard at center. The former No. 1 overall pick hadn’t started in any of his 10 postseason appearances, but he played Jokic closely through the first half, limiting a lot of his production and getting him into foul trouble early.

Forcing The King’s hand

It may seem like a dangerous proposition, but the Nuggets may need to force LeBron James to be the Lakers’ leading man in Game 5. One thing Denver cannot do is allow another big night from Anthony Davis.

Davis had 27 points in Game 3, but he finished with just two rebounds. It was his lowest tally in that category this postseason, and he later admitted that it was uncharacteristic. Credit Denver’s post presence for that. In Game 4, however, AD had a team-high 34 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals. Notably, The Brow made six shots before anyone else on the Lakers roster made a basket.

It seems obvious… the Nuggets cannot allow Davis to beat them.

Restricting Rondo

Rajon Rondo gave the Lakers a huge lift in Game 4 — especially in the second half. He was wheeling and dealing, faking defenders and hitting layups high off the glass. Alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rondo pushed the Lakers’ lead to 11 with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter.

“Playoff Rondo” was in full effect, as he went on to score 11 points and seven key assists in just 22 minutes off the bench. In doing so, he passed Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen for the 8th spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff assists leaderboard.

Rondo is hot right now, but the Nuggets must find a way to limit his production when he enters the game. It’s a tall order, as he has become the spark that fires the Lake Show’s engine. Holding him to a fewer number of assists could be the difference.

Game 5 between the Nuggets and Lakers is set to tip at 9:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, with TNT having live broadcast coverage.

Let’s see if Denver can stave off elimination yet again.