When Lakers coach Darvin Ham met with the media at the team hotel on Wednesday, he used the word “recalibrate” when asked about the size advantage the Denver Nuggets starting lineup had the night before in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals had.
Ham did not reveal whether there would be a cast change for Game 2 on Thursday evening. He also hasn’t announced any game plan adjustments.
Ham, the first-year coach, has never shown his hand in advance all season, nor did he plan to start now. He knows his side will have to play better to avoid falling 2-0 down in the best-of-seven series.
“We have to recalibrate ourselves. “Some things that worked against Memphis wouldn’t necessarily work against Golden State,” Ham said, referring to the team’s first two playoff opponents. “Some of the things we used against Golden State might not necessarily work against Denver.
“So size and all that aside, we need to know who we’re protecting. We need to know what kind of team we’re playing against. And here, too, we have to do ourselves a favor with the necessary energy and urgency.”
It made sense for Ham to start the 6-foot-1 Dennis Schroder in Game 6 against Golden State in place of the 6-8 and offensively limited Jarred Vanderbilt since the Warriors are a smaller team.
But when Schroder started against the Nuggets alongside D’Angelo Russell 6-4 and Austin Reaves 6-5, the Nuggets took advantage of the Lakers’ lack of size to dominate the backboards.
That put renewed pressure on LeBron James and Anthony Davis to take on a larger Nuggets team.
The Nuggets outplayed the Lakers 22-6 in the first quarter, which boded well for the future as the Lakers lost the battle for the courts 47-30. Denver’s Nikola Jokic hit 12 of his game-best 21 rebounds in the first quarter.
“Michael Porter is 6-10. Aaron Gordon, 6-8 or something like that. Jokic is 6-11. “Our boys are small,” said the 1.90 meter tall Davis, who had ten rebounds. “So when I contest a shot, they’re trying to get an out rebound. It’s just a matter of putting bodies on them.
“We’ve had opportunities to get rebounds that have us staring at the ball instead of finding a body. So they got a lot of offensive rebounds early in the game. So it’s about being physical. The shot goes up, body to body and then get the rebound.”
Davis said the Lakers know adjustments could be made, “and that includes our roster.”
Vanderbilt was perhaps the Lakers’ best wingback. Rui Hachimura showed his skills while defending Jokic for most of the second half.
So the Lakers have options as to who starts.
“We have people, a lot of people, that we can approach and go to who can play basketball consistently, hold the water or do better,” Davis said. “And it’s very comforting to know that we have that depth in our team. How we bring different people together is a constant, ongoing process.
“That’s why I have a great staff. I feel like I have the best team in the league in terms of my coaches by my side and the pitching ideas that allow me to make an informed decision when all is said and done. But it’s great. From Rui to Vando to Lonnie [Walker IV]there are different people that we can involve.”
The Lakers think they may have found a way to slow down Jokic. When they put Hachimura in the center of the Nuggets in the second half, Davis was able to run around more.
But Davis knows the Nuggets will be primed for the run and that Gordon will be in a better position to score and rebound.
With that in mind, Davis was asked how he could effectively roam Gordon while defending it.
“That’s why they pay me so much money,” Davis said, laughing. “I have to find out. That’s it. I have to find out and help everyone. That’s my job on this team: to help everyone defensively and protect the boys. Obviously, Gordon is a different beast than everyone else we’ve played in these playoffs, and I’m kind of that wanderer.
“He’s a bigger guy. They throw praises at him. He’s good at defence, offensive rebounding and the like. So I can’t just help too much and let him get offensive rebounds that he got in the last game and I’m doing that with Rui and Joker [Jokic]. So you have to mix up the pitches. I just have to read the gameplay and decide if Rui caught him. Should I be fully committed or just box Gordon out, or do I go and someone will get my help from behind?”
The Lakers need more from Russell too. The Nuggets attacked him all game, and guard Bruce Brown told reporters Wednesday that “he’s not the best defender, but he’s definitely trying.”
Russell, who averaged 15.1 points in the playoffs, was just four to 11 off the field, missing his three threes and ending the game with eight points.
“My message to D’Angelo is to continue with the positive energy and keep enjoying the game,” Ham said. “He’s a spirited player. Don’t put yourself down and stay aggressive and assertive.”