20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Nuggets Survive LeBron James' First Half Scoring Outburst to Sweep L.A. Lakers and Advance to the NBA Finals

The L.A. Lakers had the hype--about the players who they acquired during the season, and about their star players who have led the Lakers past the first round once since winning the 2020 "bubble" title--but the Denver Nuggets delivered the substance, completing a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals with a 113-111 win at Los Angeles. Nikola Jokic led the way with a team-high 30 points on 11-24 field goal shooting while also grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds and passing for a game-high 13 assists. When the Nuggets outscored the Lakers 36-16 in the third quarter to take the lead, Jokic had 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Jokic's eighth triple double during the 2023 playoffs broke Wilt Chamberlain's record for most triple doubles in one postseason. Jokic averaged 27.8 ppg, 14.5 rpg, and 11.8 apg in the Western Conference Finals with shooting splits of .506/.471/.778. He became the second player to average a triple double in multiple playoff series in the same postseason, joining Chamberlain, who accomplished the feat during the Philadelphia 76ers' 1967 championship season. Jokic was an easy choice for the second annual Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP.

Jamal Murray had another strong performance (25 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, plus five assists), and Aaron Gordon added 22 points on 9-14 field goal shooting. All five Nuggets starters played at least 39 minutes as Coach Michael Malone used only two bench players (Bruce Brown and Jeff Green).  

ESPN's Tim Legler made a great point after game four: the Nuggets' consistent commitment to running the floor and attacking the paint is a key factor for their success. Legler showed a play in which Jokic ran the floor and attracted the attention of multiple Laker defenders, opening up scoring opportunities for the Nuggets even though Jokic never touched the ball during the sequence. Running hard without expectation of scoring or getting an assist is a demonstration of complete unselfishness that sets a great example for the rest of the team. Legler noted that even though Jokic may not be the fastest runner, Jokic's determination to transition from defense to offense as quickly as possible is just as impactful as having sprinter's speed.

LeBron James scored a game-high 40 points on 15-25 field goal shooting while also snaring 10 rebounds and passing for nine assists. He played all but four seconds of the game. James tied his playoff career-high with 21 first quarter points on 7-9 field goal shooting en route to scoring 31 first half points, a playoff career-high that is just two points shy of Elgin Baylor's franchise record. The Lakers led 34-28 after the first quarter, and they were up 73-58 at halftime. The 38 year old James had little left in the second half, scoring just nine points on 4-12 field goal shooting. James is one of the greatest players of all-time; what he did in the first half would be amazing for any player, and scoring 40 points in a playoff game is impressive at any age--but if we judge James by his role and his status instead of grading on a curve based on age, then he is not immune from the same criticisms that any star player/number one option would receive after scoring three points on 1-6 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter of an elimination game. 

James' three point shooting has been awful for most of this postseason, but he hit 4-7 from three point range in game four. The problem with James shooting a high volume of three point shots is that James does not consistently command the defensive pressure on the perimeter that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did; defenders had to closely guard Jordan and Bryant not so much because Jordan and Bryant were elite three point shooters but because Jordan and Bryant knew how to attack sagging defenses with midrange shots, as well as how to take up space by driving at sagging defenses with a full head of steam. When James camps out behind the three point line, opposing teams are happy to live with the results of one defender putting his hand up; in other words, a James three point shot does not threaten the defense and does not open up opportunities for his teammates the way that a James drive does.

Anthony Davis contributed 21 points on 6-15 field goal shooting, a game-high 14 rebounds (tied with Jokic), and three blocked shots. He played well at times, but not quite well enough. The Lakers are at their best when James and Davis live in the paint at both ends of the court.

The Lakers traded future Hall of Famer Russell Westbrook for the "tremendous trio" of D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Malik Beasley. For game four, Coach Darvin Ham removed Russell from the starting lineup, and limited him to 15 minutes of playing time, during which Russell scored four points on 2-4 field goal shooting. The Nuggets targeted Russell's defense more often than a bullseye is targeted at a shooting range. Ham not only removed Vanderbilt from the starting lineup, but he did not play him at all in game four. Beasley also did not play at all. I wrote at the time of the trade that shipping out Westbrook for those three players did not improve the Lakers' playoff chances, and Ham's lineup choices make it obvious that he agrees with my assessment of the limitations of those three players. 

What about the Lakers' strong record down the stretch, and their two playoff series wins? To the extent that the Lakers improved at all, that improvement was caused not by the subtraction of Westbrook or the addition of the "tremendous trio" but rather by the increased availability and focus of James and Davis. Once James and Davis began playing regularly and regularly attacking the paint at both ends of the court, the Lakers played better. Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura also played very well down the stretch. It should be noted that as the season drew to a close the Lakers feasted on weak competition, with wins against Dallas, Orlando, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Utah (twice), Minnesota (twice, including an overtime win in the Play-In Tournament), and Phoenix sans Kevin Durant (twice). 

It was obvious that as soon as the Lakers faced a legitimate playoff team they would lose; my only mistakes regarding the "new look Lakers" were that I believed that the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors were legitimate playoff teams with enough juice to expose the Lakers and relegate the "tremendous trio" to irrelevance. 

During his postgame press conference, James hinted that he may retire now, and he noted that the Lakers' roster is not set, a point that his ESPN mouthpiece Dave "Vampire" McMenamin emphasized after telling the world that not only did he and James discuss these matters while they walked out of the arena together but also that he (the Vampire) talked about James' possible retirement with a source close to James. This is part of the endless Lakers melodrama centering around James, with the predictable next chapter being that James holds the Lakers hostage with vague retirement threats until they again remake the roster according to his whims. It will be interesting to see if the latest object of James' desire is Kyrie Irving, James Harden, or someone else. 

While the "experts" talked about how brilliantly the Lakers were rebuilt on the fly--with three players who contributed nothing as the Nuggets swept the Lakers--the way that the Nuggets intelligently built their roster and formed their culture went unnoticed and unappreciated. Jokic is a no-nonsense superstar who plays the right way, who builds his teammates up, and who has no agenda other than team success. It is not at all surprising that a team built around him has zero drama, and has a host of players maximizing their potential, while the Lakers have featured two members of the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team since 2020 and have nothing to show for that collection of talent other than one "bubble" title.

The Lakers had the hype, but the Nuggets proved what those who understand basketball knew all along: Jokic is the best player in the NBA, and the Nuggets are an elite team that is not going to lose a playoff series to an overrated team like the Lakers.

Labels: , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM



At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 2:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The nuggets were the better team

They played great

Murray, jokic was great

Jokic greatness impressed me

My Lakers got to conference finals but lost to a better team

Bron ad reaves rui was great

First 7 seed to make conference finals in 36 years

U picked them to lose in first round and second

It's basketball David u can't win every year

This season was success for the lakers

At Tuesday, May 23, 2023 2:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I was wrong about the round when the Lakers would lose, but I was right that the "tremendous trio" would be useless versus a legit contender.

LeBron James said that the season was not successful and that he is considering retirement, so I will defer to his evaluation of what constitutes success for him and for the Lakers.


Post a Comment

<< Home