There's a traditional basketball adage that big teams control the paint and small teams run. That's not necessarily true anymore. For starters, most teams are of comparable size these days; paint points are more a product of spacing and penetration, as opposed to the post-up pillars of the past. In these playoffs, the Lakers, Clippers, Mavericks, Jazz and Bucks are the top five teams in terms of points in the paint per game. Other than the Lakers with Anthony Davis, the other four teams get the majority of their paint points via the driving of non-traditional bigs.
Also, you don't have to be small to run. The Bucks start two seven-footers in Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo and played at the fastest pace in the league this season. Playing fast is something almost every team wants to, and can, do in general, at least selectively, and particularly with the emergence of so many highly skilled big men. Watch a Miami Heat game and you'll see Erik Spoelstra constantly motioning for his team to get running after a stop, even with a team that ranked 27th this season in pace.
All of this is to say, you have to be able to do both these days. And no team does both better than the aforementioned Lakers, who can play it both ways because they are anchored by arguably the most skilled, versatile big man in the league in Davis, who is just as comfortable with his back to the basket as he is in the open floor, and because they are led by LeBron James, who, at 35 years old, remains a runaway train who can also out-muscle anyone trying to keep him from getting to the rim.
Rajon Rondo is also a master pace dictator.
And Dwight Howard remains a very athletic seven-footer.
During the regular season, the Lakers, despite having the look of a throwback, twin-tower team with two pretty traditional big men in the starting lineup, were second in the league in fast-break points at 18.4 per game. That number has dropped in the playoffs -- as possessions, in general, tend to become more coveted and also because they wanted to slow the game down against Houston -- to 15.5, but they still rank No. 2 in the playoffs (No. 1 among the four teams remaining) and are considerably higher than the Nuggets, who are scoring just 9.1 fast-break points per game.
This is a very statistical way of saying something pretty simple: The Lakers want to outrun the Nuggets, who rely on a slow, relatively unathletic big man in Nikola Jokic to conduct so much of their offense. Jokic might have LeBron's preternatural passing abilities, but he obviously can't run with the King, or with Davis, or even with Dwight Howard, who had his way in Game 1 as well. Jokic, who first has to stay out of foul trouble, has to operate in a more methodical manner.
That's why Denver coach Mike Malone said prior to Game 1 that is this series turns into a track and field event, the Nuggets are going to lose. Well, Game 1 did turn into a track meet. And the Nuggets got blown out. They did it to themselves in a lot of ways -- way too many turnovers in the first half and not getting back on defense even after makes cost them dearly.
The Nuggets can certainly pick up their focus on getting back on defense, and in theory, they can cut down on the turnovers in Game 2. But some of this is the Lakers' defense, which is suffocating and on a rotational/switching string right now. The Lakers are scoring 19.3 points per game off turnovers, No. 1 in the playoffs, and that's not all because the Blazers, Rockets and now Nuggets are just sloppy teams. The Lakers get after you.
But let's say the Nuggets are able to get the Lakers into a more half-court game. Guess who leads the playoffs in points in the paint? That's right, the Lakers, who are scoring 50 paint points per game to the Nuggets' 37.6. Furthermore, guess who is second in the playoffs in second-chance points per game? Indeed, the Lakers.
These are the traditional tenets of a big team. Wear you down you in the paint. Pound you on the glass. LeBron's teams in both Miami and Cleveland have traditionally been slower-paced attacks. He traditionally likes to manipulate switches and survey the court, and the Lakers can certainly do that with this roster, especially when they're going through Davis in the post. But when the Lakers can also out-run you with athletes, what are you to do?
This is a theme, by the way, that could well continue if the Lakers are to get past the Nuggets and into the Finals, as both the Heat and Celtics score at a significantly lower rate in the paint and on the break than the Lakers. As with the Nuggets, those teams need to hit more 3-pointers than the Lakers, who just so happen to be getting some pretty significant shooting contributions from some rather unlikely sources.
It's all adding up to a pretty daunting task for anyone trying to beat the Lakers at the moment.