How the Lakers inched one win away from the NBA Finals

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers are one win away from going to the NBA Finals after successfully defeating the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals on Friday, September 25 (Manila time). 

While James (26-9-8) and Davis’ (34-5-3-3) numbers jump off the stat sheet, contributions by the rest of the Lakers from both ends of the floor were just as essential in securing LA a 3-1 edge in the battle for Best of the West. 

This time, it will be tougher for the Nuggets to rally from another 1-3 series deficit. Unlike the Jazz and Clippers, the Lakers have a roster with parts to counter Denver’s strengths, and expose their weaknesses. 

Those were on display in Game 4. 

1. KCP keeps balling

A serious case can be made for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being the third-best Laker in the playoffs. 

Once upon a time, Lakers fans feared the thought of KCP rising up for a jumpshot. With LeBron and AD now attracting the attention of the defense, the floor has opened up for Caldwell-Pope to attack in different ways.

The improvement of his three-point shooting has been most vital (up 4.2% in the postseason compared to the regular season). We’ve reached a point where whenever KCP goes up for a shot, the expectation is for 3 points added to LA’s score. He’s also shown an impressive slashing game. 

There was a situation in Game 4 while, in the middle of a Denver run, Caldwell-Pope faked a three-pointer from the corner to get Jamal Murray on a hard close out, then attacked the rim explosively. With only the slow-footed Nikola Jokic to protect the rim, the result was an easy dunk.

If KCP can keep balling like this, the Lakers will be in prime position to win an NBA title. Lately, he’s been consistent in making the right plays.

“It's not [just] me; it's our entire team,” Davis said post-game. “Guys are making big-time plays. We swing it to KCP and he makes a three. We swing it to Rondo, he makes a three…”

Speaking of Rondo.

2. Playoff Rondo is alive and well

When news came out before the playoffs that Rajon Rondo would miss time due to a hand injury, the response went both ways: there were those who thought it would be better for Alex Caruso to eat up his minutes, but there was also a counter argument that Rondo’s playoff experience would be significant. 

Now back and healthy, the payoff has been the latter. Rondo’s ability to control the tempo of games gives the Lakers another playmaking threat in addition to LeBron’s superb passing. His chemistry with Davis – they were teammates in New Orleans – have been key in giving the latter easy scoring opportunities.

Rondo’s timely steals nearly stole Game 3 for the Lakers. His shooting – so much better than expected – makes LA practically un-guardable down the stretch. It was his free throw line jumper which was the dagger in Game 4.

“When I got traded here, he was actually the first person I called and told him that I wanted him to come back because I knew how much I excelled with him and how much of a leader he is, and his mindset on the floor and his will to win,” Davis shared about Rondo.

“And to have a guy like that with his basketball mind, his IQ, with a guy like LeBron, and his basketball mind, his IQ, and 8 straight Finals, and Rondo having a championship under his belt, they know what it takes [to win].”

Veterans win playoff game, and Rondo isn’t just any veteran – currently, he’s also a jack of all trades.

3. Starting Dwight Howard was a great move

Lakers head coach Frank Vogel’s decision to go with Dwight Howard in the starting lineup paid dividends for LA. Following a lackadaisical start to Game 3, Vogel wanted his team to set the pace early, and playing the former Defensive Player of the Year, who’s been a pest against Jokic, accomplished that. 

In just 22 minutes, Howard finished with a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds (6 on the offensive glass). Providing LA with easy second-chance points and an athletic lob threat forced Denver to make defensive adjustments, in which Jokic wound up in foul trouble.

Dwight was also superb defensively, limiting The Joker to only 16 points and 7 boards. 

“Dwight just brings energy, you know what I mean? He fits what we want to embody in terms of being a team that plays harder than our opponent every night. He plays extremely hard and extremely physical. [He] really set a great tone for us tonight,” said Vogel.

It’s been one hell of a resurrection for Dwight.

“Dwight was a beast,” said the next man we’ll talk about.

4. LeBron’s shutdown defense

Despite the numbers, LeBron didn’t have a particularly great offensive game. He was off from the field, shooting just 7-of-18, most of his assists were by result of his teammates’ play, and were it not for 14 free throw attempts (I guess complaining to the NBA works), his scoring output would have been much lower.

However, his late game defense on Murray was flat-out incredible. 

LeBron showed signs he could still be a lockdown defender when he put the clamps on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George late during the lone Battle of LA game in the bubble. 

With Murray cooking in Game 4, and an opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 series lead on the line, James took it upon himself to do the same and put the finishing (defensive) touches on another classic playoff performance.

Did he foul Murray once or twice? Absolutely. 

But the way he stayed in front of the quicker point guard, while making it uncomfortable for him to move away from the ball, was the biggest reason why Denver couldn’t score a field goal in the final minutes of Game 4. 

Murray was getting whatever he wanted through 3 and a half quarters, while scoring in the most improbable of ways. 

LeBron put a stop to that.

“I knew it was winning time, and Jamal had it going. The kid is special,” LeBron said after the game.

“For me, it's just trusting my defensive keys. Trusting my study of film. Trusting personnel. And living with the results. I told my teammate that I had him and everyone else can kind of stay at bay and stay home. I was able to get a couple stops and we were able to rebound the basketball, which is the most important thing.”

The Lakers also outrebounded the Nuggets, 41-33. 

Is the series over?

No. 

But given the way Davis has shot the ball, given the way the Lakers’ supporting cast have stepped up to the plate, and given the way LeBron is willing to do whatever it takes to get the W, it won’t be surprising if it will be over sooner than later. – Rappler.com