What we learned about the Lakers after their round 1 victory over the Blazers

Can a five-game series be encapsulated in one play?

Try this: With 3:38 left in the third quarter on Saturday, Markieff Morris misses at the rim. Anthony Davis and Portland’s Mario Hezonja both leap for the rebound. Hezonja gets his hands on it, only to have Anthony Davis latch onto the ball, fling the Blazers forward loose of it, spin and dunk emphatically with two hands.

This series was a lot like that.

Portland may have briefly thought it was in control, only to have Davis and the Lakers rip it away.

After a Game 1 loss, the Lakers responded with four convincing wins, a run punctuated by Saturday’s 131-122 win behind dominating performances behind the two stars who came to Los Angeles for moments like this.

Anthony Davis led the way with 43 points, and LeBron James supplied a 36-point triple-double.

“We know we’re a tough team to beat,” Davis said. “We know we’re a great team, and we’ve just got to play that way every night.”

The close out Game 5 put a cap on the series, one which we learned a lot about the Lakers.

Maybe they can absorb the loss of Avery Bradley

Going into the first round matchup, the loss of Avery Bradley was expected to be a huge one. The Blazers perimeter scoring from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum was supposed to be a game changer without Bradley there to check them.

But that was far from what played out.

We all kind of overrated what Lillard would do individually to the Lakers defense. Danny Green, KCP, and Alex Caruso combined with the wave of large Lakers bodies behind the frontline was built to contain Lillard and McCollum.

In Games 2-4 the Lakers held down Lillard and McCollum due to Frank Vogel’s overloaded strategy, Anthony Davis’ persistently looming presence, team-wide veteran focus and — it should be noted — better-than-expected individual defense from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso.

“We don’t win this series if those two don’t play as well as they did against two of the best guards in the league,” Vogel said.

Caruso needs to be highlighted in this discussion.

Caruso was the point-of-attack defender on 33 pick-and-rolls in this series. They only resulted in just 27 points. 20 of those pick-and-rolls came against Lillard. Those only resulted in 14 points.

Caruso’s ability to move his feet, keep his arms out of harms way, and constantly pick up defenders 94 feet, will be even more vital in the next series when they face off with either the Rockets or Thunder, both who have explosive back courts.

Playoff LeBron is still a thing

We knew James was capable of scoring 30 points in a playoff game. He’s only done it 114 times, most in NBA history. But early in the bubble, with stakes lessened, his offensive tool set appeared rusty, his jumper was off and his first step seemed slower than when we last saw him in March.

His lack of explosion became a bigger talking point after Games 1 and 2 where he tallied just 23 and 10 points, making 13 of his 31 shots and one of his eight 3-pointers.

But like he’s done for most of his playoff career, he read the scenario and adjusted as such. He decided he would flip his demeanor and become a scorer.

  • Game 3: 38 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 4-of-8 from 3
  • Game 4: 30 points on 10-of-12 shooting, 4-of-5 from 3
  • Game 5: 36 points on 14-of-19 shooting, 4-of-7 from 3

That’s 104 points on 49 shots. Don’t let those Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell battles blur reality, those are incredibly effect numbers.

Anthony Davis should and could dominate no matter the matchup

Anthony Davis has only won nine playoff games in his career. Eight of them have come against the Blazers, a matchup that has primarily lined him up against Jusuf Nurkić, a slower-footed big unable to contain Davis. His point totals: 18, 22, 28, 28, 29, 31, 35, 43 and 47. The 43 and 47 came in the two closeout games.

The Blazers didn’t have an answer for AD, and neither does the rest of the league. He remains one of the rarest players in the league: a 3-level scorer, rim protector, perimeter defender, and runs the floor like a guard. All of those skillsets were on full display in Round 1.

In the five games against the Blazers, he went 17-of-25 on mid range jumpers. When defenders stepped up to play his shot, he blew past drawing the foul. He also thrived at the foul line in round 1. Every time you looked up he was shooting a pair of free throws.

When Davis is as efficient as he was in round 1, there is no way to guard him.

Looking forward, nothing should change.

The Rockets (or the Thunder) will presumably have no chance at slowing down Davis. 6’6″ PJ Tucker? Slow Steven Adams? James Harden for fun? Yeah good luck with those defensive options.

Kuzma is closer to a lockdown wing than he is a 3rd scorer

Kuzma’s earned reputation, prior to the bubble, is as a high-volume, low-efficiency offensive chucker who never really took defense all that seriously. But Kuzma is quickly putting an end to that narrative.

In the seeding games and against Portland, though, he has emerged as the versatile, rangy forward capable of putting up a legit fight against Kawhi Leonard (who he guarded extremely well in the bubble opener), Harden (whose shot he blocked twice), Carmelo Anthony and even Lillard and McCollum, who he guarded well on cross-matches and switches during the series.

Kuzma was the primary defender on 44 Portland possessions, which only resulted in 34 points, an excellent 0.77 per possession stand. He faced 12 isolations, resulting in only six points. Six of those isolations were against McCollum, two against Lillard. They only scored against him once and drew one foul. He got six stops.

In Kyle Kuzma’s 121 minutes, the Lakers had a 94.2 defensive rating. For those of you who don’t understand defensive rating, that is extremely good.

Remember when LeBron called out Kuzma to be the Lakers 3rd star after his game winner in the bubble? That was the last time Kuzma looked like a star on the offensive end.

He went 18-of-50 shooting in the series and only made seven of 23 3-pointers, often looking a bit too out of control on the drive and barely looking to make plays for others (four assists in five games).

But the old adage is defense wins championships right? So if Kuzma continues to play like a lockdown defender, the Lakers will live with his shooting slumps.

Who is the 4th guard?

JR Smith still isn’t working, though Vogel keeps trying. In Game 5, Smith played seven minutes and only recorded two stats — one turnover and one foul. The foul was on an and-1 3-pointer. Smith didn’t attempt a shot. The Lakers were outscored by 18 points while he was on the floor in the series. They’ve been outscored by 53 in his minutes in the bubble.

Looking to round 2 Vogel will need to test out another option.

Dion Waiters continues to be a guy that you would expect to get a chance. He has explosive offensive potential. He showed that in the seeding games. But Vogel didn’t appear to trust Waiters in round 1.

Rajon Rondo is back from his injury, maybe he finds his way back into the rotation.

In the grand scheme this final rotation spot isn’t a huge concern, but any positive play from any of these guys will be a welcomed sight.

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