You knew the shot was going in as soon as it left Anthony Davis’s hands. The scene was just too perfect for any other outcome: There was Davis, finding a pocket of open airspace beyond the arc, putting up a gorgeous shot that was the result of a perfect play design. Fitting that it was his buddy LeBron James, the man who brought Davis to L.A, who sprung the big man loose with a crushing scree—hey, wait a minute, where was the screen??
Watch the play a second and third time, and the only thing you’ll be able to see is Nuggets backup center Mason Plumlee doing, well, whatever this is:
Plumlee had just been subbed into the game, and there hadn’t been a preceding timeout for Nuggets head coach Mike Malone to give any detailed defensive instructions. But we can probably assume two things: Plumlee was on the floor primarily to guard against a lob at the basket, and the Nuggets were supposed to switch every screen. Presume those two concepts were looming in Plumlee’s head as the play unfolded, and you can kind of understand what he was thinking. He didn’t want to get dragged out to the perimeter and leave space behind him for a lob at the rim, and he was anticipating getting screened off of Davis, thus all the shouting and pointing for Jerami Grant to step out and contest the shot.
It’s that second part that tips the play into agonizing territory. Watch it again and again you’ll see that there was no screen. LeBron James was just standing there, mostly minding his own business, when Plumlee decided to change direction on his own and splat himself right into LeBron. Giving up an open shot because one guy got wiped out on a screen and the other guy didn’t switch fast enough can be chalked up to good play design beating sluggish defense. Surrendering that same shot because one guy ran himself into a screen that didn’t exist is a moment that haunts.
Malone couldn’t offer any explanation after the game, telling reporters, “I haven’t seen it yet,” when asked about what caused the defensive breakdown at the end. “Little bit miscommunication,” is how Nikola Jokic described what happened. That’s about as charitable a description as the situation can allow.