It’s a simple and obvious truth about any basketball game: The team that shoots better usually wins.
The Denver Nuggets shot 50.6% in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, including 10-of-28 from three (leading to a true shooting percentage of 62%). The Los Angeles Lakers shot 47.5% overall and 10-of-30 from three (a true shooting percentage of 59.7%). The Nuggets shot better Thursday night.
However, the better shooting team does not win when it gets crushed in another key area.
The Lakers grabbed the offensive rebound on 40.4% of their missed shots — including at three critical possessions in crunch time — and scored 25 second-chance points to Denver having six. Combine that with an aggressive and attacking LeBron James and Anthony Davis getting to the free-throw line 28 times — Denver as a team had 23 free throw attempts — and LeBron playing fantastic defense down the stretch on Jamal Murray, and a team can overcome a shooting deficit.
While the Nuggets came back from 3-1 down on the Jazz and Clippers, this series feels different — Denver may have run out of miracles. The way the Lakers closed out this game showed why the Lakers will not go the ways of Jazz and Clippers.
Once again, Davis was the best Laker on the floor, scoring 34 points on 10-of-15 shooting plus playing strong defense (his light rebounding numbers, five in this game, are overblown because the Lakers as a team are rebounding well).
But there are two key reasons the won the Lakers the game — two critical reasons they were able to hold off a Denver comeback when the Jazz and Clippers faltered in similar situations:
• The Lakers were dominant on the offensive glass, as mentioned above. They got a second chance on four out of 10 missed shots (the league average is about 26-27% of missed shots become offensive rebounds). Dwight Howard was doing it early, Davis was doing it late (plus Rajon Rondo had a critical one), but the Lakers getting a second chance to score and run off some clock down the stretch changed the game.
• LeBron James asked to guard Jamal Murray down the stretch — in the final five minutes of the game Murray was 0-of-3 shooting.
“LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it…” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said postgame. “Nothing was really working in terms of trying to slow him down until ‘Bron took that assignment.”
Vogel isn’t kidding. Murray was torching the Lakers, getting into the lane, and finding a way to finish — including maybe the best layup of the playoffs so far.
Murray finished with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, but LeBron held him mostly in check down the stretch (Murray did hit four free throws).
LeBron also had a strong game despite his jumper not falling because he hunted mismatches, throwing the Denver defense into a scramble, plus LeBron commands a double team when he gets the ball at the elbow or on the block and that opens things up.
Another key for Los Angeles was a great first half from Dwight Howard, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds in the first half while keeping the ball out of Jokic’s hands. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 13 points.
Davis rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter, limped around on it, stayed in the game and made some plays down the stretch. A slowed Davis would be a reason for concern for the Lakers.
“My ankle feels fine,” Davis said postgame. “I’ve got tonight, tomorrow, before the game to get it back to where it is, but it’s good enough to play. I rolled it pretty bad, but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”
The Nuggets also need to find a way to slow LeBron and Davis. There may not be an answer to that question.