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Lakers’ LeBron James unfazed by 3-point shooting slump

LeBron James strode into the postgame press conference late Thursday night at Ball Arena in Denver with a red baseball cap turned backward and teammate Anthony Davis at his side. He appeared relaxed, as poised as ever after the Lakers lost Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.

If he was worried about the Lakers’ come-from-ahead loss, he didn’t show it. If he was concerned about falling behind 2-0 to the Nuggets in the best-of-seven series, he didn’t reveal it in his words or body language. If he was troubled by his 0-for-10 shooting from 3-point range in the series, he wasn’t saying so.

James, a 38-year-old four-time NBA champion, has been through this before.

All of it.

All of the worry, the angst, the questions, the answers, the adjustments

“What you take out of it is that it’s not the NCAA tournament,” he said. “It’s the first team to four wins. We have the opportunity to go home and play great basketball and hold serve. So, until a team beats you four times, you always have an opportunity to come out of it (victorious).

“So, that’s the confidence we should have. I know it’s going to be a tough hill to climb up, but we still have an opportunity to play good basketball and play the best basketball of the series in Game 3. If we can get better from Game 2, like we did (Thursday), then we can put ourselves in a position to do that (win).”

The series shifts to Crypto.com Arena for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday. The Lakers are 6-0 at home during the playoffs, having won each of their home games in their opening-round victory over the Memphis Grizzlies and during their second-round win over the Golden State Warriors.

Their streak is 7-0 if you include the Lakers’ play-in victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves (their overall streak dates to late March), which sent them into the playoffs as the seventh-seeded team in the Western Conference. The top-seeded Nuggets also haven’t lost on their home floor, improving to 8-0 after Thursday’s 108-103 victory.

The odds aren’t good for a Lakers rally in this series, though. Teams are 6-56 in a series when trailing 2-0 in a conference finals, according to research by ESPN. However, the James-led Cleveland Cavaliers are two of those teams to rally to win – in 2007 and 2018.

It would be difficult to fault James for his play in the conference finals. Except, that is, when it comes to his perimeter shooting. He was one assist shy of a triple-double (26 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists) in Tuesday’s 132-126 Game 1 loss. He was one rebound shy of a triple-double in Game 2 (22 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists).

Overall, James is shooting 51.4% in the series (18 for 35).

James also helped out in the Lakers’ coverage scheme against the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, who recorded his sixth and seventh triple-doubles in the playoffs in Games 1 and 2 and has generally been a beast while shooting, rebounding and also passing to his teammates when he’s converged upon.

It was hard, grinding work, no question, but James dismissed any notion that he was tired because of his defensive duties against Jokic, who had 23 points in Game 2. Or, at least, James declined to use it as an excuse for missing all 10 of his 3-pointers in the series – four in Game 1 and six in Game 2.

“I mean, if you’re not tired in the postseason, I mean, everybody’s tired,” he said.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham also refused to use fatigue as a factor for James’ misfires, or for his shot selection in the fourth quarter, which included three missed 3-pointers. James has been at his best during the series when driving for baskets rather than shooting from the perimeter.

“I just thought he was trying to make a play for his teammates,” Ham said. “He was open. They’re playing off of him. He’s a highly capable 3-point shooter. He let it fly. With our team overall, just wanting us to continuously play downhill. That’s something I really, really want to harp on.”

Ham referred to driving to the basket rather than settling for jump shots from the outside.

The Lakers made 23 of 26 free throws (88.5%) in each of the first two games of the conference finals. By way of contrast, the Lakers were 31 for 42 (73.8%) during their 122-101 victory over the Golden State Warriors in the decisive Game 6 of their second-round series on May 12.

“I think we went from 16 (in the first half) to 10 free throws in the second half,” Ham said. “Like, we have to continuously play with aggression. Again, like I always say, love and live in the paint. That allows some of these 3-point attempts to be that much more open and that much more in rhythm.”

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