JaVale McGee has started in every regular-season game that he has played for the Lakers this season. Dwight Howard carved out a bench role that gave him more minutes per game than the starting McGee, despite only finding his way onto the roster at the last minute due to the ACL injury sustained by DeMarcus Cousins. These roles have been reduced in the playoffs, being rendered to absolutely nothing in the Lakers’ previous series against the Rockets.
McGee started and played in the first three games, but played only 12, eight, and six minutes in those games, respectively. He was removed from the starting lineup in Game 4 for Markieff Morris, as head coach Frank Vogel realized how effective the Lakers’ “small” ball lineup was against the Rockets. He did not play at all in Game 4, only playing in the waning moments of Game 5 after the Lakers handily beat the Rockets.
Howard’s role reduction was arguably even more drastic, playing 11 minutes in Game 1 followed by three straight games where he was not put in by Vogel (he also played in the closing moments of Game 5). This was somewhat expected in the Rockets series, no matter how much the Lakers said they still would be playing big despite the Rockets being entirely comprised of 6’8” wing players.
People have been dying for the Lakers to play Anthony Davis more at the center position all season; many saw it as a way for Vogel to maximize the Lakers’ ceiling. Vogel did that sparingly in the regular season, but he has obviously ramped it up in the playoffs. In the top-five most used lineups in the playoffs that included Davis, four of them had Davis at the five with the starting lineup being the only exception. Conversely, only two of Davis’ top-five most used lineups in the regular season included him at the five.
The Lakers two towering big men may be returning to the court in the Western Conference Finals. Vogel seemed to reveal that he will be using them much more often against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets than he did against the Rockets (quote transcribed by Christian Rivas and Silver Screen & Roll):
“It does make this series a little different — a lot different, actually — than last series in terms of how much we’ll use our centers. I don’t want to get too much into detail, but obviously we’re going be the L.A Lakers: who we’ve been all year. We adjust to a small-ball team last series but I would expect us to return to form.”
The Lakers won three out of four of their regular season games (the most recent being in the bubble featuring Kyle Kuzma’s game-winner), with the Lakers’ size being a huge advantage for them. Howard and McGee don’t necessarily stuff the stat sheet with points against the Nuggets, but they do beat them on the boards. Below you can see how the teams stack up in regards to rebounding and second chance points per game against each other.
Dwight Howard’s size especially made an impact on the Nuggets, with him and McGee combining for 21 offensive rebounds in the four games.
Howard regular season: 7.5 points, 7.3 rebounds (2.5 offensive)
Howard regular season (vs DEN): 10.7 points, 7.2 rebounds (3.7 offensive)
The two Lakers big men will also be needed to defend Nikola Jokic at times, especially when needing to give Anthony Davis a break from the floor. Davis, Howard, and McGee helped in the regular season hold Jokic to only 16.3 points and 5.8 assists per game compared to his season average of 19.9 points and 7.0 assists per game. Dwight Howard spoke about the possible matchup with Jokic on Wednesday, saying the following (per Christian Rivas/Silver Screen & Roll):
Dwight Howard on Nikola Jokic:
“I like him a lot. He plays under control, he doesn’t let anybody rush him … I love playing against him.”
— Playoff Rivas (@RadRivas) September 16, 2020
Do not be surprised if JaVale McGee is put back into the starting lineup, and don’t be surprised if Dwight Howard makes an impact in more than one game in this series.
All stats via NBA.com or Basketball Reference