The Denver Nuggets have been the comeback kids of the NBA Playoff bubble, but the Los Angeles Lakers are looking to take their lunch money.
From the mostly blank spaces at the top of their jerseys to the hope-crushing defeats of their previous playoff opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers are in Orlando for business. They are in Orlando to restore their birthright, to take back what is theirs and to remind us that even though they haven’t been around for a while, the West runs through L.A., via a major detour down Florida way. They are the Lakers, winners of the most titles in the modern era; but this team looks so much different than the past iterations from Showtime to Shaquille and Kobe to Kareem.
Yes, there is an abnormally large point guard running the show, but no one is confusing the smile of Magic for the scowl of Lebron. The passing may be similar but no one was scared of Magic Johnson rejecting it in their face or being postered over by a thunderous dunk. It’s also hard to compare them to the collection of large Lakers that played with Kobe Bryant during his two title runs sans Shaq.
Pau Gasol was offensively skilled but a defensive liability. Lamar Odom was more a giant play-maker that a low-post bruiser. Andrew Bynum wanted to shoot 3-pointers wasn’t even close to as evolved as Anthony Davis. Plus, those lumbering dinosaurs roamed the hardwood during the last days of the Bigmanocene Era when large, low-post behemoths were still valued and had a place in the NBA world. This Lakers team is going retro in the modern age, but what they did in a Game 1 beatdown was to show the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic specifically, that they are no joke and that tough, physical play with a defensive purpose never goes out of style.
The Lakers have bucked the current NBA trends putting emphasis on a downsized and versatile roster. They are big. They do not rely on the 3-point shot in the extreme and they get after you defensively. They rebound, protect the paint while limiting their opponent’s possessions and outside of their two superstar players, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they are role-specific players. With an offensively challenged and uneven performance in the seeding games of the NBA restart, many predicted a tough road or even spectacular failure for LeBron and the Lakers, with Portland and Houston unusually dangerous No. 8 and No. 4 seeds positing interesting challenges for Los Angeles.
The soothsayers looked right after Game 1 letdowns. Both of those losses came after extended breaks and the Lakers looked determined to not let that happen in their first game against Denver. More than that, they looked determined to set a physical tone with the Nuggets and not let Jokic get comfortable or have the space to operate his surgical game in the post areas or find open teammates. He was frustrated, in foul trouble and Dwight Howard did a particularly good job of bothering Jokic with physicality and intimidation tactics.
Within a minute of entering Game 2, Howard tied up Jokic on a rebound attempt and they were entwined on the floor. A couple of minutes after that Dwight was called for a foul that the Nuggets wanted reviewed for a flagrant. Howard is constantly talking to Jokic and I doubt they are discussing their bubble experiences or the dinner options in Orlando.
The Los Angeles Lakers are looking to bully their way right to a title
The plan is clear, but with this Laker team, the plan always was. There are ten players who have played over 100 minutes in the playoffs for the Lakers: LBJ, AD, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. Only Kuzma would not be considered a plus defender, as much of a bell-weather for the Lakers as he can be offensively. Only Rondo is under 6-foot-5, but he plays bigger than he is as he continues to prove the legends are real. Everything else in 2020 may have been a letdown, but “Playoff Rondo” does exist and he has helped solidify the play-making component that the Lakers lacked when Lebron James leaves the floor.
Plus you don’t do things like rub your sweat-soaked face all over a basketball before the ball is given to a free-throw shooter unless you are all in, which Rondo has proven that he is over the course of his career. Cough, Cough; says Dallas never happened. He brings a known commodity to the floor and that may be the key, as simple as it is, to this Lakers team that imposes its will on its playoff opponents. Caruso is a glue guy with a knack for poster dunks that continue to grow his own folk heroism in as a fan favorite in Hollywood.
KCP, Green and Morris are 3-and-D wings who aren’t knockdown shooters but bring solid defense, a do-whatever-it-takes mentality and veteran experience whenever they take the floor, even if shots aren’t falling. Howard, who didn’t play a single minute against the Rockets, and McGee are rim runners, shot-blockers and protect the paint. The Lakers, as a whole, are the best at doing so in the playoffs, allowing both the lowest overall field goal percentage as well as on 2-point attempts. They also block the most shots per game while allowing the fewest total rebounds and assists against them.
What all this means is they are tough individual and team defenders who give up lower percentage shots, while limiting offensive rebounding, possessions and easy buckets for the other team. McGee and Howard have 12 fouls to give almost every game defending the rim and then the two versatile superstars are there to bring it home. Despite their offensive capabilities, Lebron’s most famous Finals play is a defensive one and Davis just finished second in the DPOY voting. The Laker’s opponents don’t get breaks from a defensive standpoint no matter who is in the game. During the playoffs, when the pace generally slows down and becomes more of a half-court slog, LA has positioned itself well over the LeBron era to be able to exploit these postseason traits.
Offensively, the Lakers also play their own game that emphasizes good shots and 2-point baskets. 23.2 of the Lakers playoff-leading 26.2 assists per game come from four players, and 16.3 of those comes from just James and Rondo. The Lakers know who they are, what they are supposed to do and they don’t seem to lose sight of that or be phased by the next team poised to exploit their supposed weaknesses.
Versatility is great by its very definition, but sometimes it also breeds uncertainty and ill-defined positions within a hierarchy. When titles can be won and lost on one play and the execution of it in the span of a few seconds or less, the surer players are in their roles can only work to the team’s benefit. The Lakers have just that and everyone seems to have bought in for the greater good. This title is said to be the hardest one to win because of the circumstances of the bubble. The Lakers know who they are and how they play, they just want to show everyone else because they believe they are the biggest, baddest bully on the NBA block and in this tough and unprecedented year, that’s what it will take to bring the trophy back home.