After dropping a mildly concerning game one, the Los Angeles Lakers made easy work of the Portland Trail Blazers. They won four straight games to advance past the eighth seed by an average of 15 points per game. LeBron James and Anthony Davis flexed their muscles and the Lakers’ shooters came alive as the series went on.
Here are five takeaways from the Lakers’ first-round series win over the Blazers.
Lakers’ defense leads the way
It’s not surprising given how the entire regular season went, but the Lakers’ defense was by far the key to the quick series victory. The Blazers came into the postseason boasting the hottest offense in the bubble but struggled in the first four games of the series before a hot shooting night against a more lethargic Lakers team in game five. Ultimately, the Lakers held the Blazers to a 104.1 defensive rating in five games (that number was 102.2 and best in the postseason through the first four games).
Most significantly, the Lakers managed to limit Damian Lillard who was the most dangerous offensive weapon in the league in his nine games in Orlando before the playoffs. In his four games (he did not play in game five due to a sprained knee), Lillard averaged just 24.3 points on 40.6 percent shooting. His 4.3 assists per game were nearly matched by 3.5 turnovers. Much of that was due to fatigue and comounding injuries, but the Lakers also did an incredible job of throwing different looks at the All-Star. Alex Caruso played great one-on-one defense while Anthony Davis destroyed pick-and-rolls and met Lillard and other Blazers at the rim relentlessly. AD might not have won the 2020 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, but he showed why he’s the Lakers’ most valuable asset on that end of the floor routinely against Portland.
The Lakers offense woke up but it still has potential for inconsistency, especially against better defenses than the Blazers. But their defense seems to be a true reliable weapon and that will go a long way in helping them advance through the postseason. Frank Vogel’s ingenuity with guarding Lillard can only help in devising a game plan against James Harden or Chris Paul in the second round.
Lakers shooters wake up
Arguably the most important development in the first round was the Lakers’ 3-point shooting improving drastically from their early form in the bubble. After an abysmal 5-of-32 (16%) shooting night in game one, the Lakers made 55 of 143 attempts (38%) from behind the arc in the final four games of the series.
The Lakers are not a great shooting team, period. But reaching their level from before the season stoppage is a key component in their chances of winning even their next series, especially if it’s against the run-and-gun Rockets. Notably, both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (41% in the playoffs) and Danny Green (35%) got out of their funks to help bury the Blazers from deep.
Another key aspect of the Lakers’ improved shooting was LeBron James who made 12 of 20 3-point attempts in the final three games of the series. LeBron’s willingness to take pull-up 3-pointers when opponents go under the screen in pick-and-rolls is crucial in keeping the defense honest. It opens up a ton of opportunities for Davis as the roller and the rest of the Lakers’ shooters when the defense has to react to stopping that duo. If he’s hitting them at a high clip (even if the 60% rate predictably dwindles), then that makes the Lakers’ half-court offense a much more consistent problem.
Big man minutes
After a rocky start, the Lakers managed to get some decent minutes out of their center duo of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. McGee started every game and averaged six points and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 71 percent from the field. Howard added 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds on 62 percent shooting.
We did not get much of the expected drop off in minutes for Howard and especially McGee (32.2 combined minutes per game) but despite their great play at times, it was fairly clear to everyone involved that the Lakers played at their best with Davis at the center position. Frank Vogel had surely also seen that trend but that puts him in a predicament for the second round, especially if the Lakers see the Rockets, as expected.
McGee and Howard produce when they play and they are a major component of the Lakers ability to out-rebound and mail teams inside. No, they’re not the most important players on the team but they do dirty work that others, short of Davis, are not capable of. But as the postseason goes on, it becomes harder and harder to see much use for the two-big lineup.
Offensively, it massively decreases the Lakers spacing and leads to stagnant sets in the half-court (the Lakers alleviated this issue largely on the back of Davis’ explosive jump shooting but they can’t rely on him to continue shooting at that rate). Defensively, they can be taken advantage of by quicker guards and wings; against the Rockets especially, they would be expected to guard the likes of P.J. Tucker and Jeff Green.
It will likely be matchup driven at the end, but Vogel will have to make a difficult decision on limiting the minutes of two of his more consistent performers.
Did the Lakers optimize Anthony Davis?
I wrote before the start of the postseason that the key to the Lakers’ success in winning a championship will be in how they utilize Anthony Davis. After a series in which he averaged 29.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, three combined steals and blocks while shooting 57.3 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from three, it’s hard to say they used him poorly.
Still, there is room for improvement and the Lakers need to ensure that they will still get that sort of production from Davis even if his jumper isn’t falling at the scorching rate it did against Portland. Davis’ shot chart shows he still took a ton of mid-range jumpers, making an absurd 17 of 25 attempts. Again, when he’s that hot, there’s no issue with him taking those shots (though he could step behind the arc on a few of them to get that extra point). But will he always shoot that well? Compare his regular season shot chart to his postseason one.
Davis was one of the worst jump shooters in the entire league this season. While that’s not truly indicative of his ability and talent, neither is his form thus far in the playoffs. The Lakers need to be proactive in using his shooting as an asset but not a crutch.
Fortunately, the Lakers did do a much better job of getting Davis the ball in space and with room to accelerate towards the rim as the series went on. They limited his post touches and most of his jump shots came in the flow of the offense, with the big man catching and shooting in one motion, a much better use of his skillset. As Davis continues to build that pick and roll chemistry with James, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about his play moving forward.
It took a little longer than expected but we finally got some Playoff LeBron in purple and gold. The star forward got better as the series went on which is a crazy statement given the historic stat line he recorded in game one.
All James did was end the series averaging a triple-double and shoot 35-of-49 from the field, including 12-of-20 from behind the arc. The Blazers, as expected, had zero answers for The King and he delivered masterful performance after masterful performance.
Davis and the role players are obviously crucial to the Lakers’ chances at a title. But ultimately, they go as LeBron James goes and if this is what we have to expect from him moving forward, then this is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.