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A win away from NBA Finals, can LeBron James' and Anthony Davis' supporting cast get Lakers to finish line? – CBS Sports

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In That’s Pretty Interesting, a recurring column, CBS Sports’ James Herbert looks at the NBA‘s little things, which tend to feel pretty big at this point in the playoffs.  

The Los Angeles Lakers took a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals on Thursday, putting the Denver Nuggets on the verge of elimination, for a variety of reasons:

  • Anthony Davis remained an inferno, scoring 34 points on 10 for 15 shooting. 
  • LeBron James picked up Jamal Murray down the stretch, and it went pretty well.
  • For the most part, they contained Nikola Jokic who had 16 points on 6 for 13 shooting. 
  • They had a massive edge in free-throw rate and went 14 for 17 from the line in the fourth.
  • They rebounded 39 percent of their missed shots. 

Quietly, the Lakers also won another game within the game: The battle of the bench. Their reserves had an aggregate net rating (think of it as plus-minus, but weighted for playing time and measured per 100 possessions) of minus-1.7 (not great!) to the Nuggets’ minus-5.1 (terrible!), per NBA.com. 

This is not such a drastic difference that it is remarkable in and of itself. It does, however, point to a larger trend: Despite some stagnant possessions, Avery Bradley’s absence and people like me continuing to doubt them, the Lakers have been getting enough out of their supporting cast. (The exception was Game 3, in which Denver’s bench had a net rating of plus-4.5 and Los Angeles’ had a net rating of -7.8.)

An even more telling stat: In the Lakers’ three wins, they’ve outscored the Nuggets 103-97 in the 38 minutes James sat on the bench. (Per possession, that is a better scoring margin than they had with James on the court in those wins.) What do you think of that, Russ?

On Thursday, it was not just that Dwight Howard grabbed a zillion offensive boards in the first quarter, though that was a massive problem for the Nuggets. It was that, in the second quarter, Michael Porter Jr. was effectively screened by Monte Morris, resulting in an easy layup for Kyle Kuzma

And, a few possessions later, Kuzma hit consecutive pick-and-pop 3s with Porter hedging on James:

And, in the third quarter, Rondo targeted Jokic on consecutive possessions in the pick-and-roll, first getting to the line and then getting a layup:

And, in the fourth quarter, Markieff Morris made two perfect defensive reads, coming away with steals that produced free throws for James and an open 3 for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope:

Davis repeatedly brought up that Caldwell-Pope shot and two jumpers from Rondo in his postgame Zoom conference. “It’s not me,” Davis said. “It’s our entire team. Guys are making big-time plays.” This was a three-point game with three minutes to go, so Denver just needed a few more timely plays of its own.

Down the stretch, Murray created a corner 3 that could have turned out to be crucial. Paul Millsap made it, but it was the forward’s only field goal. Monte Morris converted a three-point play a couple a few possessions later, but then missed a clean look that would have cut the deficit to two. 

Long before all that, Mason Plumlee fouled Davis on a 3-pointer. Gary Harris has been almost invisible offensively all series and Torrey Craig has predictably hurt the Nuggets’ spacing, but scoring doesn’t seem like the central issue. If they are going to stay alive, they must prevent Rondo-led units from scoring at a rate that would lead the NBA in efficiency.

Fortunately for Denver, Los Angeles’ role players have not transformed into superstars. In Game 4, the Nuggets got plenty of mileage out of putting Howard in pick-and-rolls. Markieff Morris fouled out with as many turnovers (2) as he had points. Caldwell-Pope threw a hideous lob pass in the second quarter, leading directly to a Jerami Grant dunk on the break. Kuzma shot 2-for-7 from deep and is now 4-for-14 (32 percent) in the series. Danny Green’s shooting numbers are worse than that, and Rondo has not been such a positive force when James is on the court with him. 

It would be an oversimplification to say that Denver’s season is on the brink on Saturday because its role players have been outplayed. It is not, however, unreasonable to expect more from them. After each loss, coach Michael Malone repeats himself: The Nuggets have to limit Los Angeles’ transition opportunities, offensive rebounds and paint points. If they do those things, maybe they’ll have the chance to do those things again, and then maybe again after that. If they don’t, they’ll have months to reflect on why they didn’t look like the deeper team in this series, let alone the better one. 

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