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The Lakers Better Hope Their Jokic-Stopper Is For Real

11:41 AM EDT on May 17, 2023

DENVER, CO - MAY 16 : Rui Hachimura (28) of the Los Angeles Lakers fouls Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets during 1st game of Western Conference Final at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post

Because sports is always defined by the last thing you saw, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets are tied at a game apiece after one game.

Sure the Nuggets and the new MVP-by-spur-of-the-moment-acclimation Nikola Jokic, who won the trophy back from Joel Embiid last night in what we expect will be an ongoing debate of staggering tedium, enveloped the entire first half and controlled the third quarter and technically won the game 132-126. But the Lakers won the fourth decisively. The difference, everyone seems to agree, is Laker coach Darvin Ham putting Rui Hachimura on Jokic to limit his freedom on the offensive end, which either makes Ham a genius and Hachimura an X factor, or sets us up for Jokic wearing Hachimura like a fez for the entirety of Game 2 as he did the Lakers in general for most of Game 1.

Every NBA series takes on the same form. Game 1 begets adjustments in Game 2, and so forth and so on through Game 4, and then after that it's pretty much my team against your team. Ham watched Jokic systematically dope-slap his team for 36 minutes (12-of-17 shooting, 21 rebounds—six offensive—and 14 assists) and just for snicks and giggles reduced Anthony Davis to helpless laughter by hitting a 28-foot screw-it bomb at the end of the third quarter. Ham, who didn't find it quite so funny, sicced Hachimura on Jokic for the end of the third and the entirety of the fourth, forcing him to play 10 minutes of a game that most folks agreed was already done, dusted, and binned.

And of course all the Laker enclaves decided this was the moment in which the Lakers actually won the game psychically that they had lost in the three-dimensional world in which the rest of us reside. By accepting the fact that the Lakers began the game with an undersized lineup and paid for it, Ham's decision to put Hachimura on Jokic and leave Davis to roam the Denver passing lanes must surely be the defensive move of the series even though the series still has the sales tag hanging off it.

This, however, assumes that Denver's chief pepperpot Michael Malone won't adjust his operations manual for Game 2 and make Hachimura pay for the burden of dealing with Jokic full-time. In other words, this wasn't the ultimate tactical move, but the first in a series that will eventually leave both coaches out of cards and having to rely on the rosters they have been provided to do the things they do.

For one, Malone has to do more than simply hope that Davis is going to remain an on-again-off-again phenomenon after a 40-point, 10-rebound game that seemed less impressive than Jokic's 34/21/14. For two, he'll probably want more than just cursory attention paid to Austin Reaves, whose 23 points and eight assists in support of Davis and LeBron James was the only other offensive highlight in a game that was played at too fast a pace for either team.

And for three, Malone will want to see what Ham has in store not just for Jokic but for Jamal Murray, who was the Nuggets' left hook to Jokic's straight right all night, all the way down to his steal of James with 18 seconds left to kill what minimal hope the Lakers still had.

Unlike the Warriors series, in which the Lakers shot twice as many free throws en route to a statement-making series win that has left the Warriors publicly flogging themselves for events eight months in the past, the Nuggets minded their manners enough to make free throws a non-issue, which meant that there was no soul-sucking whine-a-thon about the officiating. Somehow the metric tons of vitriol piled upon Scott Foster for being Scott Foster never seems to be applied to any crew run by Zach Zarba, which suggests that maybe Zarba is actually the elite official of the era, or at the very least the lubricant that makes every game seem less like a rolling injustice to the losing fan base, and often to the winning one as well. We aren't quite as confident about Marc Davis, Ed Malloy, and Rodney Mott in Boston tonight, but that's because that series is tied at zero, which if nothing else is mathematically more defensible than the Lakers and Nuggets being tied after one.

Game 2, though, is often the silent killer in a series. If the Nuggets are the team of the first three quarters again, they will take a 2-0 lead and based on all-time NBA results will have a 92.6 likelihood of closing out the series (teams down 0-2 are 33-414), and Rui Hachimura on Nikola Jokic will become an afterthought that will never be referenced again. Then again, we have very few mathematical guides for a series being tied 2-2 going into Game 3, a rhetorical likelihood that will almost surely convince you to watch the rest of the playoffs by yourself with the mute button engaged. 

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