Over the last 9 games the Lakers have lost only twice — both times to the Orlando Magic. Those games, disappointing as they may be, offer perspective, however, on not only where the Lakers are now, but in what they have in front of them tonight.
In terms of where they are, the Lakers are playing some good basketball. They’ve flipped their statistical profile over the last three weeks, becoming a team that is flashing high level defense but a so-so offense that has a penchant for coming up in some of the more meaningful moments of games. That’s not worked out every night, but it’s worked out enough to give the Lakers one of the league’s best net-ratings in “clutch” game situations this year. The result has been some memorable losses, but also some key victories that have seemingly given the team a confidence that they are never truly out of any game (Raptors game notwithstanding).
In terms of tonight’s game in Denver, though, the Magic offer a bit of a blueprint for what the Lakers are up against. First and foremost, the Nuggets (like Orlando) offer a multi-dimensional big man who can score from anywhere on the floor. And while Nikola Jokic has had some issues channeling that offensive repertoire into sustained aggression of his own, when you combine his overall arsenal as a scorer with his sublime passing and playmaking ability, the Lakers are going to have a tough go of things defensively.
Also like Orlando, the Nuggets have some scoring pop in the backcourt which needs to be respected and accounted for. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris make up one of the better young guard tandems in the league, with Murray offering real scoring pop and Harris bringing two-way ability with a diverse offensive attack that includes deep shooting and a knack for slashing into open spaces for finishes at the basket.
Add it all up and the Lakers defense will need to be more attentive than normal, especially when the ball is in Jokic’s hands while Denver’s wings screen and cut all over the floor. Further, defending the arc is a necessity against this team as they’ll often field lineups where every player on the floor is a viable threat from deep, leaving little room for error on rotations and closeouts as the ball pings around the perimeter. If the Lakers are a half step slow, it could spell doom and put them in an early hole.
Offensively, the Lakers will do well to target Jokic in P&R’s, forcing him to hedge/recover or switch entirely on the ball handler. The Lakers have had much success running 4-1 P&R’s with Lonzo screening for LeBron, but this game should offer more opportunity for more traditional actions between Lonzo/JaVale or Lonzo/Chandler — especially when Murray/Jokic are on the floor.
Another wrinkle I’ll be watching closely is how much, if at all, the Lakers go small. When these teams played earlier in the season, the Lakers pulled out a W in the 4th quarter by playing LeBron at C, pushing tempo, and putting extra burden on Jokic to attack LeBron on one end and then defend in space on the other. The result was a 13-6 closing flurry over the game’s final 3:49 and a 7 point Lakers win. Since the acquisition of Tyson Chandler, the Lakers have rarely played small, instead preferring to almost always have one of Chandler or JaVale McGee in the game at all times. Will that trend continue again tonight or will Luke go small — especially if Jokic is having a proficient night on the perimeter?
Lastly, the Lakers must take better care of the ball tonight and not commit the types of careless turnovers that have plagued them over the last handful of games. Denver isn’t the most athletic team, but they’re a high powered offense that can and will take advantage of miscues. The Lakers will need to play a clean game offensively to not put their defense at a disadvantage and avoid the types of easy transition baskets that can get the home team rolling.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start on Spectrum Sportsnet and NBA TV.