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Dan Woike: Lakers frustrated they can't beat Nuggets, and the problem is getting worse

Dan Woike, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

Last spring, there was almost a universal Lakers' voice bemoaning a lack of continuity, their deadline-assembled roster no match for the bulldozing Denver Nuggets, who made every big shot and got every big stop during a Western Conference finals sweep.

The Lakers' offseason, in no small part, was driven by the chance to respond — the vow to essentially "run it back" with small changes around the margins.

Yet those inside the locker room acknowledged a harsh, yet obvious, truth, following the Lakers' 124-114 loss to Denver. They're not close to beating the team that ousted them a year ago. And, if you really examine it, the gap might actually be widening.

Following Saturday's game, in which the Lakers were outscored 16-4 in the final four minutes, players publicly and privately expressed frustration with their late performance against the Nuggets. Multiple players pointed to how Denver changed their offensive tendencies, like they did in earlier meetings this season and last year in the playoffs, and how the Lakers still didn't have an organized late-game plan for the defending champions.

"They do the same thing. And they beat us with it every time," Anthony Davis said postgame when asked if he felt the gap was closing. "So yes, we're getting closer as far as the first, I guess, 42 minutes or you can even say 44 minutes, right? And then that last four minutes is just them getting to what they get to. And they make us pay for our mistakes, like I said.

"Granted, they made tough shots. But they get to it every time and you know it's coming."

In three games this season against the Lakers, the Nuggets have dominated the fourth quarter, scoring 153.1 points per 100 possessions. It's the highest fourth-quarter efficiency for the Nuggets against any opponent this season.

Denver's net rating (the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) is a whopping 25.7 in fourth quarters against the Lakers this season.

"They've got so many different weapons out there that can hurt you," coach Darvin Ham said after Saturday's loss. "They make you play a full possession throughout the clock of defense. And again, once that shot goes up, then the battle really, really starts. So, you know, you just gotta keep throwing stuff at them."

None of it has worked in crunch time.

In three games with the Lakers, Denver has scored 19 more points in the fourth quarter while shooting 61.2% from the field and 52.2% from three.

In the team's previous meeting, the score was tied 104-104 with 2:18 left before the Nuggets scored 10 points on four possessions in a little more than a minute to grab the game.

The Nuggets somehow have missed just a single shot when the score's been within five points in the final four minutes of the last two games with the Lakers.

 

In seven minutes of crunch time in the last two games, defined as the score being within five points, Denver's got a net rating of 109.5 points per 100 possessions.

"They have our number," LeBron James said.

And those numbers? They were actually better a year ago.

Last year in fourth quarters of the Western Conference finals, Denver scored 120.4 points per 100 possessions and outscored the Lakers by just six total points in the final quarters.

The defensive issues stem from the inability to corral Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll plays, a problem that doesn't solely belong to the Lakers.

Murray scored 10 points in the fourth quarters in each of Denver's last two wins against the Lakers. Last year in the Western Conference finals, he averaged 10.8 points in the fourth.

Additionally, the Nuggets supporting cast has feasted with the defense focused on Murray and Jokic. This season in three fourth quarters, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon have scored 32 points on 75% field-goal shooting.

Jokic, in those fourth quarters, has missed just twice in nine attempts.

The Nuggets' continued late-game dominance left the Lakers flustered, with James going as far as to say there's just no answer for Jokic defensively.

Perhaps a return from Jarred Vanderbilt helps, though he was mostly a nonfactor against the Nuggets a year ago. Gabe Vincent's two-way potential was attractive, in part, because of a possible showdown with the Nuggets but he's still not back from knee surgery.

All that involves a lot of projection.

In reality, the gap between the Lakers and Denver, the team that's now beaten them eight straight times, is only getting wider.


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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