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NBA Playoffs – Biggest takeaways from Game 2 of Nuggets-Lakers



When the Los Angeles Lakers took a 16-point lead with 8:12 left in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets, it seemed like they would cruise to a victory, similar to Game 1.

But the Nuggets kept playing, cutting the Los Angeles lead to 82-78 entering the fourth quarter. After a Nikola Jokic hook shot, Denver took a one-point lead with one possession to defend.

Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beater gave the Lakers a 105-103 win to take a 2-0 series lead, but it was quite a way to get to the end. Our experts submit their takeaways after two games between the Nuggets and Lakers.

Anthony Davis leaves a legacy against Nikola Jokic

LeBron James had played in 54 conference finals games heading into Sunday night, and in none of those would he ever have walked away with a victory the way he played in the second half of his 55th.

But until now, James didn’t have the type of all-encompassing force that is Anthony Davis as running mate. That is the reason why the Los Angeles Lakers won Game 2 over the Denver Nuggets.

Davis made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, flashing out to the wing and stepping back to launch the gorgeous arcing bomb, and that sure is the headline.

“This is what they brought me here for,” Davis said moments later on the TNT broadcast, “to make big plays.”

But there is everything that orbits around that play that explains why having a James-Davis marriage is proving to be as fearsome as anyone with the Lakers could have dreamed.

First off, James was miserable by his standards in the second half. He went 2-of-9 on shooting and had just 6 points after halftime with more turnovers (4) than assists (3). In the fourth quarter, as the Lakers’ offense wheezed and the Nuggets made one of their classic comebacks, James spent more time complaining to the refs than scoring as he went 1-of-6 from the field.

Davis, however, made James’ rare playoff lapse fade to the background as he scored 22 of his 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting in the second half. He scored 10 in the last five minutes, nailing two enormous 3-pointers.

Second, Davis was so good that it allowed James to be a decoy on the final play.

It’s not that this hasn’t happened before — James stood in the corner and never touched the ball when Kyrie Irving made his famous 3 in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals — but it just never would happen on a last-second shot.

In 2015, then-Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt tried to draw up a play with 1.5 seconds left in a road playoff game against the Chicago Bulls with James as decoy, with Irving getting the look. James halted the huddle and changed the play, saying later he “scratched” that idea.

Davis is such a complex player to guard, Denver coach Michael Malone put in backup center Mason Plumlee to guard Davis with 2.1 seconds left because he was afraid of a lob at the rim. Rajon Rondo, the triggerman inbounding the ball, saw the switch and instantly decided they’d take advantage of Plumlee and run the faster Davis outside and leave him in the dust.

“[Rondo] made the right read,” James said on Spectrum SportsNet. “I definitely was thinking the ball was coming to me but AD broke open behind me.”



Anthony Davis hits a game-winning 3-pointer as time expires to give the Lakers a 105-103 win over the Nuggets in Game 2.

Rondo didn’t have to consult with James; everyone understood this was the best policy. James doesn’t “scratch” plays for Davis. Even in their first year together with Davis deeper in the playoff pool than he’s ever been before.

Sensitive to criticism that they overpaid in the trade for Davis last year when they sent three young players including All-Star Brandon Ingram, three first-round picks and pick swap rights to the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers and their fans like to question how any of those assets compared to Davis in that night’s box score.

In this moment, as Davis celebrated the triumph and a brilliant second half that bailed out James, he felt like a bargain at twice the price.

“We leaned on him, especially in the fourth quarter,” James said. “And he brought us home.”

— Brian Windhorst

Another fast start for LeBron James

Back in May 2018, the last time LeBron James was in the playoffs, he made a declaration that surely confounded the statistical formulas relied upon by analytics acolytes everywhere: “Two points ain’t two points. That’s a lie. Two points is not two points.”

He was coming off one of the more impressive playoff games in his career, tossing in an array of tough, fadeaway jumpers in a 43-point performance to go up 2-0 on Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He made that statement a couple days later at shootaround before Game 3, explaining that those shots didn’t just switch the scoreboard, they squelched the spirit of the Raptors.

In Sunday’s Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against Denver, that quote from James came to mind when he scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half. It wasn’t about degree of difficulty so much as importance of the moment.

When he scored the first 12 points of the game for Los Angeles, his last five points of that run — a stepback 3, followed by a finger roll in transition — felt like more than five points because the Nuggets had jumped out to a 12-7 lead and were threatening to control the tone.



LeBron James drives through and puts in a difficult shot with some spin while getting fouled in the fourth quarter.

It carried over in the second quarter. His 3 with 8:18 increased L.A.’s lead from two to five. When Denver scored on the next possession to get it back to three, James cut back door and scored at the rim to push it to five again. Los Angeles went on a 12-1 run from there to build its biggest lead of the game. He found moments that mattered.

The Nuggets, being the Nuggets, made a comeback. And James contributed to it, certainly, shooting 2-for-9 with 4 turnovers in the second half after going 8-for-11 with 2 turnovers in the first half.

But, his words still rang true. Trailing Denver 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left, Rajon Rondo threw a baseline inbounds pass to Anthony Davis on the wing for a game-winning 3 at the buzzer.

If he misses, Denver ties up the series and adds another incredible confidence-boosting comeback to their postseason journey. But he made it, putting L.A. up 2-0, just two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Sometimes three points ain’t three points either.

— Dave McMenamin

Nuggets in a hole again, but it’s different this time

Being doubted and overlooked has become a part of Denver’s identity in the Florida bubble, as they’ve bounced back from one seemingly insurmountable series deficit after another. Jamal Murray’s assertion that they play their best basketball with their backs against the wall has become a team rallying cry.

“Well, we actually did petition the league to see if we could just get right to it and start 3-1 down,” coach Michael Malone joked before the conference finals began. “But that was shot down.”



Jamal Murray blows by Anthony Davis for the tough layup, which is answered by a Danny Green triple on the other end.

Playing from behind isn’t new to the Nuggets. Their loss to the Lakers on Sunday, though, marks the first time they’ve fallen into a 2-0 hole. In the first two rounds, Denver has managed to tie the series before falling down 3-1.

And this time, it came down to the last shot.

“There’s no silver lining,” Malone said after the game. “This is the Western Conference finals. The message is: We’re down 2-0. We’ll go out and win Game 3.”

— Malika Andrews

The Nikola Jokic experience

After several trips to the free throw line in the second quarter, Nikola Jokic would immediately sprint back down court even though the ball wasn’t in play yet.

No one could blame Jokic after the Los Angeles Lakers looked like they were running laps around the Nuggets at times in their Game 1 blowout win. Michael Malone made it a priority to try to slow down the Lakers’ transition game.

But the Nuggets didn’t get this far with Jokic playing at someone else’s pace. When Jokic is at his brilliant best, he’s picking apart a defense at his methodical pace, one in which no one can speed him up or slow him down.

The Serbian big man did his best to try to even this best of seven Western Conference Finals in a third quarter that saw him start to dissect the Lakers’ defense and then a furious fourth-quarter rally where he almost went toe-for-toe with Anthony Davis. But unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic did not have the ball in his hands at the end. It was in Davis’ hands, and the Lakers’ All-Star big man drilled the game-winning 3 with Jokic flying at him to hand the Nuggets a 105-103 loss and a 2-0 hole in this series.

Jokic did all he could, finishing with 30 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. Jokic scored 11 points in the final 2:42 to nearly steal Game 2 for the Nuggets.

After he was effectively taken out of Game 1 by foul trouble when he picked up his third personal with over seven minutes left in the first half, Jokic found himself living at the free throw line in the second quarter of Game 2. He went 8-for-8 from the line to slow the pace down for the Lakers.

And when the Lakers opened up a 70-54 with 8:12 in third, Denver went on a 21-8 run and got back into the game with Jokic impacting the game the way the Nuggets need him to.

Finally able to get some favorable switches onto smaller defenders, Jokic was able to draw double teams and expose them with his passing. Finding open or cutting teammates, Jokic had five assists in the third quarter and Denver went into the fourth down by just four.

Michael Malone gave Jokic a much-deserved breather to start the fourth after the center played the entire third. And Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and PJ Dozier helped the Nuggets actually briefly take an 87-86 lead with 7:26 left. But the Lakers buried four 3-pointers and pushed the lead to 100-92 with 3:03 left.

But as Denver has done all postseason long, the Nuggets played their best when they had to. An aggressive Jokic showed up just when things looked bleak. Davis had the last shot and the last word. Now Jokic has to find a way to respond in Game 3, or the Nuggets will find themselves perhaps staring at a 3-0 hole for the first time under Jokic.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

Rob Pelinka’s Lakers two wins from NBA Finals

It was 14 months ago when Lakers GM Rob Pelinka was used as a public piñata.

It started with the public humiliation on ESPN’s First Take by his former boss Magic Johnson. From there, it was the questions about whether the Lakers hired the right coach in Frank Vogel. A month later, it was whether the Lakers had given up too much in draft picks and young players to acquire Anthony Davis. And finally, it was Kawhi Leonard spurning them to sign with the crosstown LA Clippers.

The same speculation continued — Pelinka was is in over his head.

What has transpired since is that Vogel would lead the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference and coach in the All-Star Game.



Frank Vogel explains why he likened Anthony Davis’ game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2 to a shot that Kobe Bryant would’ve made.

Davis was named first team All-NBA and first-team All-Defense, while finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year and fifth in MVP.

As for losing Leonard to the Clippers?

Instead of having Davis, LeBron James and Leonard (yes, it would have been formidable) with a bench of players on a minimum contract, Pelinka pivoted to a Plan B.

He would use Davis and James as a sounding board on all free agent decisions.

“We were doing constant calls about, ‘What do you think of this or this player?'” Davis told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin before the season started. “Rob was almost like a stalking girlfriend. He was an agent, so he’s played both sides. He knows that in order for stuff to work, the players have to be involved. And he tried to make sure that LeBron and I were involved as much as possible. During free agency, every decision I got a text or a call, even just two minutes, ‘Look, this is going on. … How do you feel? OK, cool.'”

The $32 million in cap space that was designed for Leonard was used to sign Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and JaVale McGee. Veterans Rajon Rondo and Jared Dudley signed for the veteran minimum exception. Former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard came on board for a non-guaranteed minimum contract.

In February, the final signing came when Markieff Morris agreed to give back all of his 2020-21 salary ($4.2 million) with the Detroit Pistons to sign with the Lakers.

A year after being a punchline, the team that Pelinka built is now two games away from the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

— Bobby Marks

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Miami Heat president Pat Riley ready to run it back next season with similar team



MIAMI — Pat Riley is always looking for ways for the Miami Heat to improve. This offseason has him wondering if that might come from within.

The Heat president on Friday said that the top offseason priority for the Eastern Conference champions “is to take care of the players that we have” — such as free-agent-to-be Goran Dragic — while maintaining salary-cap flexibility to add an impact player in a 2021 offseason that could see many stars on the move.

“We have a good idea of what we want to do,” Riley said in his annual end-of-season media availability.

No plan can be considered completely firm yet; the NBA board of governors met Friday, simultaneous to Riley speaking, to discuss ideas about when it might be feasible to start next season. And the financial details for next season remain unclear as well, such as salary-cap changes and luxury-tax numbers. All that will have an obvious impact on every team’s plans, Miami’s included.

But Miami is clear on some matters: The Heat have no intention of letting extension-eligible All-Star center Bam Adebayo leave, and Riley said keeping this past season’s team as close to intact as possible has crossed his mind.

Kelly Olynyk has a player option for about $12 million, while Meyers Leonard, Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill and Derrick Jones Jr. are among the Heat’s free agents.

“We know what our priorities are,” Riley said. “It is to take care of the players that we have, that we have to make decisions on almost immediately. We know Bam has a decision to make and we do with him. We know the guys that have sacrificed for us that we really like, our free agents, especially Goran.”

The Heat might have ended up as the surprise of the league this season, with All-NBA player Jimmy Butler‘s arrival leading a turnaround that saw Miami go from missing the 2019 NBA playoffs to winding up in this season’s finals as a No. 5 seed. Riley raved about what Butler has brought to the Heat, and also lauded coach Erik Spoelstra for doing what he called a masterful job this season.

“Spo was the coach of the year, for me,” Riley said.

The Heat have long been expected to be a major player in the 2021 free-agent season, when names like two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and many others could potentially choose to hit the market.

What they do in this offseason will obviously affect their spending power next year.

“I just think we need to remain fluid,” Riley said. “Once we get all the numbers and we get everything down, we get the schedule, we know when the dates are, and what the rules are in everything, once we get all of that, we’re going to remain fluid. And whatever presents itself to us, we’ll look at it.”

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Sources — NBA eyes pre-Christmas start, 72-game regular season



The NBA is pursuing a pre-Christmas Day start and a reduced regular-season schedule for the 2020-2021 season, abandoning plans to delay the opening with hopes of incorporating fans back into arenas, sources told ESPN.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA is proposing several changes to next season that include a 72-game regular season, a play-in tournament and the likelihood of no All-Star Game or All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis, sources said. The league is considering a two-week break at the midway point of the season, sources said.

The NBA shared these plans in a call with the league’s board of governors on Friday afternoon, and the league plans to move quickly to complete negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association to implement the plan, sources said.

The reduction in regular-season games — which would help accommodate a play-in tournament format for both conferences — allows the NBA to finish the season before the Summer Olympics in Japan.

A pre-Christmas start also allows the NBA’s television partners — ESPN and Turner — to further realize the value of broadcast partnerships.

As the coronavirus continues to rage across the country, the NBA strongly prefers to stay out of a bubble format and continues discussing travel and game schedules that would keep teams in a marketplace longer and playing multiple games, similar to Major League Baseball series, sources said.

Two-thirds of the league’s local jurisdictions aren’t currently allowing for public gatherings of more than 500 people, and ominous public health projections for the trajectory of the virus’ spread have limited the league’s hope of safely returning fans to arenas in the next few months, sources said.

Around the league, there’s support to be playing again by Christmas, but a realization that it’s going to become a chaotic challenge coming out of a Nov. 18 draft, free agency and training camps that would need to be open shortly after Thanksgiving. Without a bubble environment, the NBA will be facing positive coronavirus tests for players and staff.

Oct. 30 is setting up to be a key date. The NBA and NBPA agreed that day would be the deadline to complete ongoing discussions on modifications to the collective bargaining agreement for the 2020-21 season, a deadline date that requires the league or union to provide 45 days notice if either decides to terminate the CBA — a scenario that sources continue to believe is a remote possibility.

It would also mark roughly eight weeks until Christmas week. Commissioner Adam Silver has told the union that there would be at least eight weeks between an agreement and the formal start of next season.

The loss of fan revenue on game nights — which Silver says is 40% of the league’s revenue — is causing the NBA and NBPA to make significant financial allowances in salary caps and player escrows.

Talks between the NBA and union have been productive on making the necessary financial allowances on 2020-2021 salary-cap and luxury-tax thresholds to account for the massive losses in revenue from the pandemic, sources said.

Ongoing talks are centering on increased escrow taken from players’ salaries, sources said. The league and union are still awaiting full audits on the Basketball Related Income that accounts for the league’s 51-49 revenue split with players.

The NBA and NBPA are working on resetting the 2020-21 salary-cap and luxury-tax numbers based upon those audits and financial projections for the next year. This allows for teams, agents and players to have more time to prepare for the financial realities of the pandemic’s impact on the league. As the NBA draft approaches on Nov. 18 — and with free agency expected to start soon after — teams are anxious for the league to reach an agreement with the union and deliver them more certainty on the cap and tax bills.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.

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NBA schedule debate – Pros and cons of a Christmas Day start to the season



The NBA season ended just under two weeks ago with uncertainty around when the 2020-21 season would begin. On Friday, ESPN reported that the league’s Board of Governors is discussing starting the season as soon as Christmas Day. The move would mean that the end of the 2019-20 season and schedule for games for the 2020-21 season would be just over 10 weeks, about half the typical amount of time.

Among other changes being discussed: a regular season with fewer than 82 games, not waiting for fans to be permitted in all league arenas, as well as tournament and play-in scenarios.

Our NBA experts weighed in with first impressions of the proposal and what its effects could be, as well as what other changes they’d like to see.

MORE: Top 100 NBA draft rankings

1. What was your first reaction to the report that the Board of Governors is considering moving up the season’s target start date?

Kevin Pelton: I’m surprised the league is thinking that aggressively given the timetable for the draft and NBA free agency, which probably can’t start any earlier than Nov. 23. Starting barely a month later on Christmas would mean abbreviated training camps similar to the post-lockout versions in 1999 and 2011.

Bobby Marks: Not surprised. The goal for the NBA has been to avoid playing playoff basketball in September and October. If the league adopts a Christmas Day start and plays a 72-game season, that goal would be accomplished. Even if the standard 82-game schedule is played, the regular season should end in mid-June with the Finals ending in late August.

Kirk Goldsberry: Surprise. It seems everything is either being pushed back or canceled these days, and most people I spoke to around the NBA had been expecting a start date between January and March, so to hear the news that we might start as soon as December was a legit surprise.

Tim Bontemps: That this is going to be very difficult for the league to pull off. Free agency is expected to begin around Dec. 1 so there is little time to turn things around without massive complications. That said, money talks. Avoiding competing with the NFL during the NBA playoffs and taking advantage of the massive Christmas Day audience will allow the NBA to make more money.

Eric Woodyard: Honestly, at this point in 2020, I wasn’t surprised. While I was expecting the season to start close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Christmas is a prime date so it certainly makes sense. But with the quick turnaround, it will be interesting to see the reaction from players, who would have to approve any such proposal.

2. Who would be helped most by that decision?

Bontemps: Teams that are keeping the status quo. In a world where there already is so much uncertainty because of the pandemic, throwing in a truncated training camp and free agents coming in along the way will make trying to get the new season started a huge challenge for many teams. So for groups that are likely to return with minimal changes — such as the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat — will be at a big advantage.

Pelton: Teams with continuity would likely benefit. When I studied the value of continuity last season, I found it didn’t generally seem to help teams start faster. That was different after the 2011 lockout, when teams with high continuity played noticeably better over the first 10 games compared to the rest of the season.

Marks: The teams not invited to Orlando (especially the Golden State Warriors). While the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets were battling it out for a trip to the NBA Finals in late September and the LA Clippers were firing head coach Doc Rivers in early October, the Warriors have been sitting back since mid-March. There will certainly be some bubble playoff fatigue that Western Conference teams will endure at the start of the season and Golden State should be ready to capitalize.

Woodyard: The NBA. It’s a smart business move to play games as soon as possible. Let’s not forget that the NBA is a business.

Goldsberry: People who love to watch basketball. We expect to see hoops all winter and the playoffs in the spring. A Christmas Day start date sets us up nicely for a potential return to normalcy on the calendar.

3. Who would be hurt most by that decision?

Goldsberry: A lot of folks would groan about this, but as a former front office guy, I can’t imagine trying to pull off a draft, a free agency period and training camp between now and Christmas. Normally, the time between the playoffs and summer league is the wildest time of year for a front office — this year, it could be bonkers. If we race into a Christmas start date, front offices will be scrambling.

Pelton: Teams that want to dramatically overhaul their rosters via trade this offseason might have to think twice about doing that with little time for their new lineups to practice together. An accelerated training camp also seems to work against players returning from serious injuries — most notably Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

Marks: The players. Agents are bracing for the possibility of up to 40% of the escrow being withheld from players, sources told ESPN. That money would offset losses incurred with a lack of revenue coming in from home games. And from a health standpoint, 22 teams just endured a grueling stretch of basketball, both physically and mentally. I would think that players who finished the playoffs in September or October will not be happy that training camp is now weeks instead of months away.

Woodyard: Teams who made a deep playoff run in the Orlando bubble, because it doesn’t allow much time for recovery after competing on such a high level. The Lakers and Heat, in particular, would have to jump right back into action after fighting for a title.

Bontemps: Free agents, as they would all but certainly have a slow start to the 2020-21 season because of their ongoing contractual situations — particularly for players who aren’t signed immediately.

4. What would you change about the play-in scenario?

Bontemps: Having been in the bubble for the seeding games, I thought the play-in game was a success. I’d potentially have some interest in expanding it to, say, teams 7-10 in each conference, but that would require more thought, as that would take several days to play out.

Marks: The restart games sold me on the play-in scenario, something that I was highly skeptical of. For a normal regular season (82 games or shortened), I would like to see teams that are two games back in the standings eligible for a play-in game. Leaving the four-game benchmark that we witnessed this summer would certainly dilute the regular season.

Pelton: Compared to what we saw last season, I like the idea of having more than just the 8-seed up for grabs. I would maintain the angle we saw where challengers had to be within a certain number of games to trigger the play-in possibility.

Goldsberry: Single-elimination games only. None of this 9-seed has to beat 8-seed twice stuff. Just make it simple.

Woodyard: The NBA playoff play-in scenario was a great idea but it worked for the bubble setting. If a team takes care of business during the regular season, they shouldn’t have to participate in a play-in for a spot they’ve already earned.

5. What other formats or tweaks would you like to see the NBA experiment with?

Pelton: Besides the play-in tournament, I think the seeding games also showed the value of locking in draft standings at a certain point so teams don’t have to worry about hurting their chances with a late run. That worked well this season because the bottom eight teams didn’t know beforehand the season would end on March 11. Randomizing the date on which the standings freeze would make for a better lottery system.

Marks: A heavy dose of conference games and only playing East vs. West one time. If the goal is to get out of the bubble setting and back into the home market of teams, the normal travel of a typical NBA season will need to be scaled back. I am also in favor of playing a baseball-type schedule where a team like Philadelphia would play in Chicago on three out of four nights.

Woodyard: I would like to see the NBA experiment with a condensed schedule, possibly shortening the season between 56-62 games. That format would keep players fresh and give fans a much better product because guys won’t have to worry so much about load management.

Bontemps: I’ve long been a proponent of a midseason tournament of some kind, along the lines of what takes place in European soccer and basketball. I know this would take everyone from fans to teams to players time to buy into, but long term it could be a really good thing for the sport, as it would give teams another thing to shoot for. In a time where finances are an issue, it would also give the league something else to sell.

Goldsberry: I would love a meaningful single-elimination midseason tournament. Basketball is at its best when single games can make or break a team’s chances. That’s why March Madness can be so exciting. Imagine filling out a bracket for a league-wide single elimination tournament — that would be awesome. In addition, it’s time to eliminate conferences and put the best 16 teams in the playoffs, even if it means tweaking the schedule. I’m in favor of a 58-game regular season where you play every opponent twice, a midseason winner take-all tourney and a straight-seeded playoff bracket where conferences are irrelevant.

MORE: The 25 best free agents in 2020

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