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Anthony Davis ready to earn ‘the big bucks’ and be a Game 2 star for Lakers

Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun.
Forward Anthony Davis drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets guard Christian Braun during the second half of the Lakers’ 132-126 loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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When Lakers coach Darvin Ham met with the media Wednesday at the team’s hotel, he used the word “recalibrate” when asked about the size advantage the Denver Nuggets’ starting lineup had the night before in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

Ham did not reveal whether there would be a lineup change for Game 2 on Thursday night. He also did not signal any sort of game plan adjustments.

Ham, the first-year coach, never has shown his hand in advance all season and wasn’t about to start now. He knows his team has to play better to avoid falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

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The Denver Nuggets were not surprised that the Lakers were able to keep up in Game 1, and know they must step up the defense throughout the series.

May 17, 2023

“We have to recalibrate. Some of the things that worked against Memphis wouldn’t necessarily work against Golden State,” Ham said, referring to the team’s first two playoff opponents. “Some of the things we used against Golden State may not necessarily work against Denver.

“So, size and all that other stuff aside, we have to know who we’re guarding. We have to know what type of team we’re playing. And, again, we have to do ourselves a favor with the proper energy and urgency.”

It made sense for Ham to start 6-foot-1 Dennis Schroder instead of the 6-8 and offensively limited Jarred Vanderbilt in Game 6 against Golden State because the Warriors are a smaller team.

But when Schroder started against the Nuggets alongside 6-4 D’Angelo Russell and 6-5 Austin Reaves, the Nuggets took advantage of the Lakers’ lack of size to dominate the backboards.

That put rebounding pressure on LeBron James and Anthony Davis to battle a taller Nuggets team.

The Nuggets out-rebounded the Lakers 22-6 in the first quarter, a sign of things to come as the Lakers lost the battle for boards 47-30. Denver’s Nikola Jokic had 12 of his game-high 21 rebounds in the first quarter.

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is fouled by Lakers forward Anthony Davis.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) is fouled by Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) in front of forward Rui Hachimura (28) in the final minute of the Lakers’ Game 1 loss.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“Michael Porter is 6-10. Aaron Gordon, 6-8 or something like that. Jokic is 6-11. Like, our guys are small,” said the 6-foot-10 Davis, who had 10 rebounds. “So, if I go and contest a shot, then that’s when they try to out-rebound. It’s just about putting bodies on them.

“We had opportunities to get rebounds, where we were staring up at the ball instead of finding a body. That’s how they got a lot of offensive rebounds to start the game. So, it’s about us being physical. Shot goes up, put body on body and then go get the rebound.”

Davis said the Lakers know there are adjustments that could be made, “and that includes our roster.”

Vanderbilt has been perhaps the Lakers’ best wing defender. Rui Hachimura showed his ability while defending Jokic most of the second half.

So, the Lakers have options when it comes to who starts.

“We have guys, a bunch of guys, that we can tap into and go to that can play consistent basketball, hold the water or take it up a notch,” Davis said. “And that brings a lot of comfort knowing that we have that kind of depth within our team. How we go about plugging different guys in, it’s a constant, ongoing process.

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“That’s why I have a great staff. I feel like I have the best staff in the league in terms of my coaches that’s around me and pitching ideas and allow me to make a well-informed decision when it’s all said and done. But it’s great. From Rui to Vando to Lonnie [Walker IV], there are different guys we can plug in.”

After the Lakers made a valiant effort to put themselves in position to steal a Game 1 win in Denver, it was LeBron James who failed to deliver.

May 17, 2023

The Lakers think they might have found an avenue to slow Jokic. When they put Hachimura on the Nuggets center in the second half, that allowed Davis to roam more.

But Davis knows the Nuggets will be ready for the wrinkle and that Gordon will be in a better position to score and rebound.

With that in mind, Davis was asked how he can be effective roaming and defending Gordon at the same time.

“That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” Davis said, laughing. “I got to figure it out. That’s it. I got to figure it out and I got to help everybody. That’s my job on this team, to help everyone defensively, protect guys. So, obviously Gordon is a different beast than anyone else we have played in this playoffs and I’m kind of like that roamer guy.

“He’s a bigger guy. They throw lobs to him. He’s good sealing in the paint, offensive rebounding, things like that. So, I can’t just be helping too much and let him get offensive rebounds, which he got last game, with me doing that with Rui and Joker [Jokic]. So, you got to mix up pitches. I got to just read the flow of the game and decide if Rui got him. Do I fully commit or just go box out Gordon or do I go and someone got my help on the backside?”

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Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic had a triple-double performance in Game 1, but Lakers’ Rui Hachimura could be the key in defending the two-time MVP in the series.

May 16, 2023

The Lakers also need more from Russell. The Nuggets attacked him all game, with guard Bruce Brown telling reporters Wednesday that “he’s not the best defender, but he definitely tries.”

Russell, averaging 15.1 points in the playoffs, was just four for 11 from the field, missed his three three-pointers and finished with eight points.

“My message to D’Angelo is to continue with the positive energy, continue to enjoy the game,” Ham said. “He’s a high-spirited player. Don’t get down on yourself and stay aggressive and assertive.”

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