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The Lakers Broke the Nuggets Offense, but They Can’t Count on Doing It Again

Denver’s freewheeling offense stumbled when L.A. moved Rui Hachimura onto Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis into help position, but is that a series-shifting adjustment for the Lakers or just a temporary annoyance for the Nuggets’ superstar center?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With a little less than six minutes remaining in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham pulled his team into a huddle and reconsidered the most important decision in this series: who, exactly, would guard Nikola Jokic. For the majority of the night, that responsibility had fallen to Anthony Davis—possibly the best defensive player in the world, aptly demonstrated by a first-half possession in which he walled up the two-time MVP in the post and ended a Jokic hook shot before it had even left his hand. It was an absolutely sensational play. It was also one of just five shots that Jokic would miss all game long, and a footnote to what would ultimately be a 34-point, 21-rebound, 14-assist masterpiece.

That sort of dominance demands adjustment. So Ham, as an alternative, gave the job of stopping an unstoppable force to Rui Hachimura. “I wanted to take A off as being the initial line of defense, and hopefully Rui could turn him and make him go east-west a little bit more,” Ham told reporters after the game. On the 10 trips down the floor when Hachimura checked Jokic in the half court, the Nuggets scored six total points. Denver’s freewheeling offense broke down—not because Hachimura had any top-secret strategy to counter Jokic, but because him bodying up the superstar center meant that Davis didn’t have to. The kicker: AD never really stopped guarding Jokic, either, even while technically minding Aaron Gordon. The postseason’s leading shot blocker just tracked every play at an intimidating remove, forcing Jokic to account for his presence.

The strategy worked, and yet it wasn’t enough. Denver held on for a 132-126 win, though at one point LeBron James—who was in full-on bully ball mode, with Jamal Murray in his sights—led a run that shaved the Nuggets’ double-digit lead all the way down to three. There’s fair reason for Denver to be concerned about the way things bogged down. “They were just free safety-ing with Anthony Davis and letting him man the paint and making it look really crowded,” head coach Michael Malone said. “Our execution can be better.” And it will be. Some playoff adjustments shift the tectonic plates of a series, altering the facts on the ground to the point of changing everything about how the games are played. Other adjustments really just amount to a temporary annoyance—distracting and maybe even disruptive, but only until the opposing team bothers to swat them away. The Lakers’ big strategic play in Game 1 edged closer to the latter than the former, which is how losing a game they once trailed by 20-plus points can still wind up feeling like a missed opportunity.

Throwing Hachimura at Jokic worked precisely because it was counterintuitive. Ham had said long before Game 1 began that AD would guard Jokic, and stuck with that approach even after the Nuggets scored 72 points in the first half. But all along, the Lakers had prepped out the option for this sort of alternate matchup, and in a desperate moment Ham tipped his hand. “It was a part of our game plan, and we talked about it before the game,” Hachimura said. “The coaches told me that I’m gonna guard Jokic, too.” And he still will, in Game 2 and beyond. But every time he does, the Lakers risk overexposing him. The change in coverage during Game 1 forced a buzz saw offense to stop, think, and overthink. Jokic passed out of a few scoring opportunities and tried to force the action in others. The rhythms of creating offense completely changed with Davis clogging up the paint.

“It may be something we go to in Game 2,” Davis said. “Obviously, we’ve gotta go back and look at the film.” Unfortunately for the Lakers, Jokic and his teammates will be digging into the tape, too—and they won’t find any coverage they can’t crack. It’s all a matter of knowing what’s coming. When the Nuggets watch this sort of stunted possession back in a film session, they’ll map out ways to better space the floor for the next time Jokic calls for a clear-out:

Gordon parking himself in the dunker spot isn’t exactly helping—just look at how Davis can drift all the way over to Jokic without giving up much of anything. Murray is understandably trying to position himself as an outlet against a potential double-team, but sets up so close to Jokic that he practically creates one instead. If the other Nuggets aren’t going to move while Jokic picks on Hachimura, they at least need to give him room to operate. And when they do get moving, they have to know where and how their openings will materialize. When Murray—who hit incredible shots throughout Game 1 en route to 31 points—sees a possession like this one in the light of day, his missed connection with Jokic will jump off the screen.

Even elite players can be tempted to rush when they’re figuring things out on the fly against a scrambling, high-level defense. In retrospect, Murray could have slow-played that opportunity by stringing out the defense off the dribble instead of taking the first decent look he could find. (Though with the way Murray was shooting, one can understand why he might.) Hachimura isn’t just a target for Jokic to batter in the post; he’s clumsy defending the pick-and-roll, too. But wayward possessions like this one below are even more glaring:

It’s one thing to miss a read in the heat of a moment, with the gaps blurred by scrambling bodies and flailing limbs. But all night long, Denver had been able to create open 3-pointers on demand just by putting Jokic at the top of the floor and running a shooter into a handoff. Dennis Schröder locks up Murray to keep him from getting that kind of opening, but rather than pivot into that same action with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who was 3-for-8 from distance) or Michael Porter Jr. (who was 3-for-6), Jokic whirled through traffic and threw up a shot that never had a chance.

For defenses with size to spare, it’s fairly common practice to station the most intimidating shot blocker away from the action, where they can cast the longest possible shadow. ”We saw it before,” Jokic said. “We saw it against Minnesota. We saw it even in the season.” The fundamental difference—and what made the fourth quarter so jarring for the Nuggets—is the master class timing and vertical explosion Davis brings to the back line. He doesn’t even have to leave the restricted area to toss back Jokic’s runner. He doesn’t even really have to load up to leap for it. Davis simply waits out the drive and the spin, knocking the ball back as if Jokic had hurled his shot against a wall.

“[Jokic] shoots 70 percent on those little short-range chip shots and floaters and hooks and little one-leg fadeaways,” Ham said. “He scores them at an amazing rate. The idea was just to get A behind him a little bit, and have A as that big, long arm just ready to contest over the top of Rui.”

There will be a clamor for the Lakers to start Hachimura in Game 2, especially after their smaller lineup got absolutely smoked in the series opener. It probably wouldn’t hurt, and it certainly can’t get much worse than losing the rebound battle 22-6 in the first quarter. But leaning on Hachimura to defend Jokic on anything resembling a full-time basis just isn’t a viable option. He spaces out too often. He loses focus on his positioning. Throw him into the fire and he’ll commit silly fouls and fail to line up correctly in transition and forget to box out. The unfortunate truth for the Lakers is that their best chance to slow Jokic down with Hachimura has already come and gone. Earlier in the game, it took Jokic all of a few minutes to figure out what kinds of shots he could get off against Davis. But once he got a feel for the one-on-one matchup, Jokic barely missed again. The same would be true for going at Hachimura—which is really just going at Davis from a different angle.

There’s real matchup shock in attempting to maneuver around a rim protector like AD, just as there is for the Lakers in trying to keep a playmaker like Jokic under wraps. When you’re one of one, no opponent is ever fully ready for you. They might know your moves, or where you like to operate, or what you hope to accomplish. It’s just impossible to know what it really means to try to stick with Jokic through every fake or to somehow get past Davis on a drive until they’re living it. Hachimura handled his first test against Jokic with remarkable poise, contributing to a degree that cannot be ignored. In doing so, however, Hachimura has given the Nuggets everything they need—the film, the familiarity, the flat-out urgency—to make sure it never happens again.