The Denver Nuggets have been one of the best clutch teams in the NBA since reaching the Orlando bubble. They've outscored opponents by 15 points in clutch situations during the playoffs, trailing only the Miami Heat, but something about the Denver defense short-circuits in the closing seconds of games against the Lakers.
When the two met during the early-bubble seeding games, Denver led for most of the fourth quarter. The Lakers briefly regained the lead before Denver tied it again at the free-throw line. But with 0.4 seconds left, Kyle Kuzma buried the Nuggets with this 3-pointer.
The game itself was largely meaningless. Denver sat its starters in the fourth quarter. Clearly, such a loss couldn't repeat itself on a bigger stage, right?
Trailing by two with only 2.1 seconds remaining the Lakers, this time playing against Denver's starters with decidedly higher stakes in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, managed to spring Anthony Davis free for -- you guessed it -- a game-winning 3-pointer.
The two plays shared more in common than you might realize. The clever use of LeBron James as a decoy stands out as one obvious trait. The fact that both came off inbounds plays is another, though one started on the baseline and the other the sideline. The real similarity worth mining here, though, is in what happened defensively to allow such clean shot attempts in the first place. The Nuggets experienced similar defensive breakdowns on both game-winners.
Let's start with Kuzma's shot. LeBron starts as the inbounds passer, and Kuzma sets a cross-screen for Davis. He proceeds to curl freely towards LeBron before slipping a screen meant to convince Denver that James was the one shooting. With the defense focused on LeBron, Kuzma made it to Davis, who hit him with the easy pass for the clean 3-pointer. But how did Kuzma get so open in the first place? Check out what happens when he sets the cross-screen for Davis.
Bol Bol clearly expects the Nuggets to switch that screen, matching him up with Davis and Mason Plumlee up with Kuzma. Plumlee disagrees, and stays with Davis through the screen. He tries to recover, but when Kuzma slips the screen for LeBron, Plumlee plays for a LeBron shot. That gives Kuzma the airspace he needs. Bol, by virtue of his absurd length and proximity to Davis, is close enough to get a hand up, but not to meaningfully alter the shot. That one mistake at the very beginning of the play is what set up Kuzma's winner.
So what led to that miscommunication? Probably a lack of reps. The Nuggets don't switch particularly often, and Bol is a rookie who hardly played during the season. Switching relies on trust that is built on the court. LeBron knows this well. His Cleveland Cavaliers teams tried -- and failed -- to pick up switching in the NBA Finals against the Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors after not playing that way during the regular season, and they got hammered as a result.
So let's fast-forward to tonight. The Lakers didn't have a timeout to draw up a play, so they leaned on their experience from a month ago. LeBron, again, serves as the decoy at the elbow. Davis is the one curling around a screener. Plumlee, again, starts the possession on him. But seeing LeBron, he decides not to pursue him and calls for an early and frankly ill-advised switch. Jerami Grant, who is on LeBron, doesn't execute that switch. Both wind up behind James as Davis makes the shot.
Now, there are a number of possible explanations for this breakdown. LeBron's screen on Grant deserves credit. It's possible that Grant planned to switch but was merely stonewalled in the process. He might also have been justified in declining the switch. LeBron is undoubtedly the greater threat on the final possession of a game. Grant doesn't have eyes in the back of his head. He surely worried that if he had switched, LeBron would have slipped to the basket, and with Plumlee a step behind and Nikola Jokic occupied with the inbounds passer, Davis could have hit James for a possible layup.
The situations aren't identical, but there are similarities between that scenario and what happened at the end of Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers took Roy Hibbert out of the final possession, so LeBron flew right to the basket with 2.2 seconds left.
But the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The Nuggets don't run a switch-heavy defense. The Lakers, having already benefitted from a failed switch in a very similar situation, banked on a similar outcome. They got it, Davis nailed the shot, and now they're two games away from the NBA Finals.