If the Lakers learned anything in their Friday night (122-113) loss to the Suns it’s that playing hard and smart is not an option. This, in theory, is a lesson already known, but when you’re facing a team for the third time and have already beaten them twice, when that same team is playing on the 2nd night of a back to back and gave up 90 points in a half just a night earlier, sometimes those lessons don’t always stick.
The Lakers learned the hard way that the Suns weren’t there just to give them another notch in the W column and instead were their to kick their butts. The Lakers didn’t sort it all out until they were in a hole and this time couldn’t slow Devin Booker down the stretch. The result was an L and it’s on to the next one.
That next one is tonight, against the Denver Nuggets, a team with a record reflective of their preseason expectations. The Nuggets are currently 9-5, 5th in the West, and playing to their profile of a prolific offense with a defense just good enough to not allow teams to simply pile up points. Denver is 5th in offense, 17th in defense and this is the profile of a firm playoff team even in a conference that is so unforgiving the juggernaut Warriors aren’t even in 1st place right now.
The Lakers are familiar enough with these Nuggets, facing them twice in the preseason — both games losses. The Lakers struggled to defend in both games, losing the Nuggets shooters as frequently as I lose my house keys and surrendering the types of open looks Denver will bury you with. The Lakers had particular trouble tracking Nikola Jokic trailing and popping behind the arc, which triggered a wonderful flow the Lakers got swept up in, unable to recover.
So, the Lakers should already know a major key to tonight: stay connected to shooters and don’t let this team find a flow. That’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s what everything else triggers off-of for the Lakers defense. The Nuggets are a top-10 3-point shooting team, making 37.4% of their shots from distance on over 28 attempts a game. That latter number isn’t an insane amount (it’s actually around middle of the pack), but their effectiveness from out there combined with the Lakers lack of success from range could mean too many possessions where the Lakers are trying to match triples with deuces. I didn’t major in math, but I’m pretty sure I know how that equation works.
If there’s one thing that could make this matchup different than the exhibition season it’s that Brook Lopez will be around for this one. Lopez has been up and down this year, but he’s still the Lakers best player and a foundational piece for what they want to do on both ends of the floor. He’s also a much better matchup individually for Jokic, able to stretch him out to the 3 point line on one end and offering more size and bulk to battle him when he works 15 feet and in.
Jokic isn’t necessarily Joel Embiid, but the Serbian big man has wonderful combination of size, skill, craft, and smarts to punish smaller defenders. So I’m interested in seeing how much time Randle gets vs. him and, during those minutes, how much the Lakers continue to switch screens. This is the game within the game as switches onto Jokic by the Lakers wings and guards could mean trouble down low, which then could lead to over helping, which then leads to the 3’s I mentioned at the top of this piece. It’s all connected, you see.
From the Lakers end, then, finding their offense is imperative this game. Scoring at the general rate they have all season will not be enough this game and the Nuggets defense will give them opportunities. Even more specific than putting up points is that it’s the first unit that needs to find some scoring punch. Lopez will need to take advantage of whatever space Jokic gives him by knocking down some threes and by attacking in the paint with deep position position. KCP will similarly need to find his range, even though his matchup with Gary Harris will be challenging.
But, if there’s one player who could use some buckets it is Lonzo Ball. Much has been made of the rookie’s struggles to find the bottom of the net. And while I’ll support and advocate against criticism against Lonzo since he’s been making an impact in other ways, the old adage of this being a make or miss league is true. You can tell he already feels the pressure to hit shots and his frustrations with his lack of finishing is beginning to creep into other parts of his game. It would be nice if the Lakers ran a bit more off-ball action for him to get shots at the rim, maybe a lob or a quick hitting post up…something that can hopefully get him going.
Lastly, the Lakers need to take care of the ball better this game. They’ve been a bad turnover team for far too long, squandering too many possessions. Against a top flight offense like the Nuggets, miscues will be turned into points. If the Lakers aren’t careful, they’ll open themselves up to the types of runs their own offense will not be able to make up.
Where you can watch: 6:30pm start time on Spectrum Sportsnet.