Generally speaking, the last game before the NBA All-Star break is actually the beginning of the break. The All Stars are getting ready for a busy weekend. The non-All Stars are already on vacation in their minds. Well past the halfway point of the season, everyone is tired, mentally and physically.
And yet, the Lakers and Nuggets left everything they had on the court Wednesday night in what felt like a conference finals game. It may very well have been a preview, in fact, of a potential series between these two down the road. The Nuggets are for real, but the Lakers were just too much in prevailing with a 120-116 victory in overtime.
All things considered, this might've been the Lakers' most impressive win in what so far has been a highly impressive season. Any team with LeBron James playing in his 17th season would seem custom-made for the load-managing, slow-playing tendencies of today's top contenders. But the Lakers have hardly taken a game off all season, and they certainly didn't take Wednesday night off.
Again, the Nuggets were fantastic. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic combined for 54 points and 16 assists; their two-man chemistry is basketball art. Jerami Grant and Monte Morris were superb. If Gary Harris' 3-point ever comes back, there aren't going to be too many teams that can stop Denver's attack. It seems like every Nugget on the floor is an exemplary cutter, as Jokic continues to find new, creative ways to reward them. There isn't a shot in the world Murray can't create and make.
But in the end, the Nuggets don't have LeBron and A.D. No team in the league has two players that great. When games and series are being decided by a few buckets here and there, a few crucial stretches, a few defensive stops, the Lakers can go to a level the fringe contenders like Denver can't consistently reach.
And they can go there with ease. LeBron can initiate offense out of nothing and Davis can finish everything. They each posted 32 points and 10 boards on Wednesday. LeBron added 14 assists for his 12th triple double of the season, which ties him with Luka Doncic for the most in the league. Two times, with the score tied late in overtime, James found Davis for a three.
There is nothing fancy about that. It is simply the two best players on the court making the swing plays with the game hanging in the balance. Davis was 1 of 4 from three until he hit those two killers. The Lakers are not such a dominant team that you cannot envision anyone hanging with them, or even pushing them right to the brink. Their blueprint is to be in position to win every night, then let LeBron and A.D. take them home. They've done it all season. If they're going to win a championship, this is likely how it will happen.
Beyond LeBron and Davis, the Lakers strongest championship pillar is their collective size, and indeed that was also on display Wednesday night. Outside of Davis, Dwight Howard was a beast, even guarding on the perimeter and stoning Murray at the rim on a key late possession. The Lakers just overwhelm you with size and power. They tallied 10 offensive rebounds to Denver's three on Wednesday. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have the second-highest offensive-rebound rate in the league. Stopping LeBron and Davis once is hard enough. Give them extra possessions, and you're going to die.
The Nuggets scrambled with Jokic, Grant and Paul Millsap, the latter two trying to fight above their weight class, but that is an uphill battle that is exhausting at best and fruitless at worst. Jokic was completely gassed by the end, and he committed a costly turnover when he had a chance to attempt a game-tying three in the closing seconds of overtime.
Jokic has to let that one fly rather than put it on the deck, but look at five Lakers defenders on the court: Davis, LeBron, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That is a beast of a defensive lineup that can switch and handle size and cut off penetration from everywhere. If you watch that play again, Caldwell-Pope makes a terrific read by first sinking down to cut off Jokic's drop-off-pass option, then anticipating Jokic's kick pass to the corner and jumping the lane for the steal.
Frank Vogel went small on this final possession because Denver was looking for a three and he wanted the Lakers to be able to switch and cover ground on the perimeter. It has been assumed all season that Vogel will lean more heavily on smaller lineups with Davis at center once the playoffs begin, but it's starting to look like this might not be the case. A lineup of James, Davis, Caruso, KCP and Howard is gigantic and tough as nails.
Again, Howard is playing awesome, and twin-tower size is an advantage the Lakers possess over every other top contender. The Clippers like to close with Montrezl Harrell at center. The Bucks play their center at the three-point line. Entering Wednesday, the Lakers were taking 39.9 percent of their shots at the rim, which ranks fourth in the league, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Bucks, even with Giannis Antetokounmpo, rank 10th in that category, while the Clippers rank 17th. The Lakers beat you up old-school style in the paint. Per CTG, they are finishing 68.8 percent of their shots in that area, which is the top mark in the NBA. The Lakers don't shoot a lot of 3-pointers; per CTG, they rank 23rd in 3-point frequency and 13th in accuracy. Their advantage, at least against the two teams most widely figured to be their top title challengers, lies on the interior.
Stars and size. That's the Lakers' championship blueprint, plain and simple. And it was all on display Wednesday night in a game they easily could've mailed in.