The Los Angeles Lakers have thrown the first punch.
Led by Anthony Davis, who scored a game-high 37 points to go along with 10 rebounds, the Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals with a commanding 126-114 victory.
LeBron James contributed 15 points and 12 assists while Kyle Kuzma and Dwight Howard made an impact off the bench with a combined 24 points. Both Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray scored 21 points for the Nuggets, but it wasn't nearly enough to keep things close.
What do the Lakers need to do to take a 2-0 series lead and what do the Nuggets need to do to tie the series at 1-1?
Here are three things to watch in Game 2.
Dwight, turning back the clock
Howard played more minutes in Game 1 against the Nuggets (16) than he did in five games against the Houston Rockets (15) in the previous round.
And for good reason.
Howard made an immediate impact in Game 1, recording a block and two steals within two minutes of checking into the game. He was also a foul drawing machine. Not only did he cause Jokic, Murray and Paul Millsap to each pick up their third foul of the first half, Howard attempted eight free throws in the second quarter alone, which was as many as the Nuggets attempted as a team in the entire frame.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel rewarded Howard for his strong play in the second quarter by starting him in place of JaVale McGee to open the second half.
Dwight switched hands to block Jokic ✋ pic.twitter.com/Tw4gI496LZ- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 19, 2020
Howard went on to finish with 13 points, three rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 16 minutes of play. The Lakers outscored the Nuggets by 14 minutes with him on the court, putting him behind only Danny Green (20), James (15) and Davis (15) for the best plus/minus on the team. (Plus/minus is far from a perfect stat, but it did a good job of capturing Howard's impact in this particular game).
McGee, for comparison, went scoreless and failed to pull down a rebound in his 10 minutes on the court. His plus/minus? Minus-11, the worst on the team.
It'll be interesting to see if Vogel decides to stick with his normal starting lineup in Game 2 despite that disparity or if he switches things up by starting Howard at centre out of the gates.
Denver staying out of foul trouble
Quite simply, the Nuggets can't afford for Jokic and Murray to be in foul trouble to have a chance of winning this series.
Both of them came out strong in Game 1 - Jokic had 11 points on 5-for-10 shooting compared to 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting for Murray in the first half - but they were both limited because of foul trouble. The Nuggets played the final 7:22 of the second quarter with Jokic on the bench after he picked up his third foul and the final 3:53 of the second quarter with Murray on the bench after he picked up his third foul.
There were a couple of calls that drew the ire of Basketball Twitter, but, as Gibson Pyper of Half Court Hoops wisely pointed out, the Lakers had clearly done their homework when it came to Jokic, as they used his foul drawing tendencies against him to bait him into his third foul.
Jokic and Murray's fouls contributed to the Lakers taking 32 free throws in the first half, of which they made 22. According to ESPN Stats and Info, it was only the fourth time over the last 20 seasons that a team had attempted at least 30 free throws in the first half of a playoff game.
The Lakers took five more free throws in the second half, putting their total at 37 for the game.
"We were called for 16 personal fouls in that quarter," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said about the second quarter. "And then on top of that seven turnovers, again fueling their break.
"I have to go back and watch the film to see what we can do better. How do we defend without fouling because we're not going to beat that team by putting them on the line 37 times."
The transition and turnover game
According to NBA.com, the Lakers averaged 19.0 points per game off of turnovers during the regular season, the third-highest rate in the league behind the Chicago Bulls (21.2) and Toronto Raptors (19.5). Additionally, they averaged 18.4 fastbreak points per game, trailing on the Raptors (18.8) for the highest mark in the league.
The Lakers had it rolling on both fronts in Game 1, turning 16 turnovers into 24 points and scoring 16 points on the fastbreak.
As Malone alluded to, the Nuggets can't afford to be careless or take their time getting back on defence because it makes them vulnerable to possessions like this...
Such is the reality of going up against a team led by James, who has long been one of the league's more feared scorers in transition.
Much like how the Nuggets are going to have a hard time defeating the Lakers if Jokic and Murray can't stay out of foul trouble, they're going to have little-to-no chance if they can't take care of the ball and limit the Lakers in transition. It's in the halfcourt where Los Angeles is vulnerable. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Lakers averaged 94.4 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt this season, ranking them 19th in the league.
Slowing the Lakers down and making it a halfcourt game is obviously much easier said than done, but it starts with not turning the ball over as many times as the Nuggets did in Game 1.
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