Records: Lakers 17-3, Nuggets 13-4
Offensive ratings: Lakers 110.9 (6th), Nuggets 106.8 (18th)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (5th), Nuggets 101.9 (1st)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee
Nuggets: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Injuries: Lakers: Avery Bradley (out); Nuggets: Jerami Grant (probable)
Lakers coming in: The Lakers 10 game winning streak is over, the team capsized by Luka Doncic and the Mavs on Sunday afternoon. I won’t belabor too many points from that game — you can read my recap for that — but I will say, again, that the chickens came home to roost for the Lakers here. They probably played well enough to beat the Grizzlies or the Hornets, but not the top ranked offense in the league. So, it’s over.
Beyond the level of play stuff that has fans both a little anxious and defiantly confident at the same time, I really don’t have much to say about the team right now, in the present. Through 20 games, they’ve played really well a lot, not as well sometimes, and poorly for small stretches in a handful of games. They’ve racked up 17 wins, though, and for that I’m grateful. This team is good with the potential to be great.
For now, that’s enough. In March and April, you want them squarely on the side of great. They can get there, but it requires channeling a level of commitment they’ve shown they’re capable of, but have not conjured for more than a handful of complete games games. Fans will feel how they feel about that, but I’m okay with knowing they have that level in them at all. It’s better than knowing they don’t, that’s for sure.
Nuggets coming in: Denver has the 2nd best record in the west and before a loss to the Kings on the road Saturday had won 6 straight games. That streak saw them beat the Suns, Nets, Celtics, and Rockets so it’s not flukey. They’re a really good team even if they’ve not necessarily played like the team fans and analysts were anticipating after a trip to the 2nd round of the playoffs last year.
Denver, in a bit of an anti-expectations turn, is where they are because they boast the NBA’s top rated defense and a middle of the pack offense. You would not think of them as a dominant defense first, but they play well as a team on that end, grounded by plus-level defenders like Paul Millsap and Gary Harris while the other pieces do their jobs and cover for eachother. A special shoutout for Jamal Murray is needed here, he’s raised his level of effort and play on that side of the floor and is doing more of the little things that help you win games rather than simply being the scoring point guard he’s looked at as.
In the end, though, beyond their defense or teamwork, the Nuggets will go as far as Nikola Jokic takes them. During last season’s playoffs, Jokic differentiated himself as one of the league’s best players, a matchup nightmare who would take smaller, nimbler defenders to the post and bigger, bulky ones to the perimeter. A passing savant, the Nuggets would run their offense through him — slashing, screening, fading, and back-cutting into windows that Jokic would slip passes into with the precision of a surgeon.
This season, though, Jokic has not played to that level. After a summer with the Serbian National Team at the FIBA World Cup, Jokic came into Nuggets training camp a bit overweight and looking…lethargic for long stretches. His numbers are down across the board as a result, though he looks to be playing his way into better condition as the season progresses. As a total outside observer, my best guess is that a long NBA campaign followed by a summer of international ball has him slow-playing his way towards a repeat of his monster playoffs. Maybe that’s giving him too much benefit of doubt; showing too much respect to a great player.
I don’t know, honestly. Either way, Denver is really good with Jokic playing this way and, on some levels, it’s a bit scary to consider what they’ll be if (when?) Jokic finds the heights he did this past May.
Keys to the game: There’s a certain mentality you have to possess to win this game. Actually, let me correct that — there’s a certain mentality you have to possess to play well enough to win in this game. I’ll be interested in seeing if the Lakers bring it.
Coming off a blowout loss, on the first night of a back to back, playing at altitude, and starting out a road trip, there’s a focus and determination the Lakers will need. We can talk X’s and O’s or matchups, but this game will be won by how hard the Lakers compete, their ability to maintain their focus, and their commitment to defend with purpose and smarts for long stretches. Don’t get me wrong, they can do these things and still lose. But they cannot win without them.
From a matchup standpoint, Denver offers a diversity of attack that means everyone must be ready to their job individually and collectively. Stopping or slowing down Jokic doesn’t mean just defending him in the post or ensuring you close out hard to the arc while keeping your wits to still defend the drive, but it means pressuring passing lanes, showing discipline vs. backdoor cuts, and always staying aware of where your man is sliding to in order to open himself up for a pass. A lot of this responsibility will fall on JaVale McGee early, but my hopes is that as the game evolves we see AD and LeBron both get their chances on him too. I think this is a classic “play AD at C” game, where he can use his quickness, height, and length to limit Jokic — particularly late in games.
LeBron vs. Millsap is the other matchup I’ll be watching closely. Millsap is a wonderful defender in the halfcourt, so I hope to see LeBron strategically push the pace and work the margins in transition. Getting too caught up in tempo is likely a mistake in the mile-high city, but turning defensive rebounds into quick outlets or grab-and-go’s can give Bron an opportunity to get some easy baskets for himself and teammates before Denver’s defense is set.
One other thing I’d like to see happen offensively: Kyle Kuzma finding a rhythm. Kuz has been up and down, but the Mavs game might have been his worst of the year (and for sure his worst since the rough stretch immediately following his season debut after his summer injury). Kuzma is likely to be matched up against Jerami Grant, a long and versatile defender who can match his quickness and contest his shot well. This isn’t the easiest matchup for Kuz, but it’s one he can still do well in because…Kuz really can score on most anyone when his confidence is going. To me, then, this is the bigger key. I want him to shoot with confidence and play aggressive basketball offensively. If he does that, he’ll be fine.
One last defensive note to key in on — LeBron will likely start on Will Barton who is the team’s 3rd leading scorer and a guy who can get hot from all over the floor. There is no resting for Bron here, he’s going to have to track Barton around the arc, watch him on cuts, and mark him in transition. Bron has more size than Barton and he can use that to his advantage, but Barton is a fearless offensive player who will have no qualms about attacking LeBron in an attempt to get him on his heels.
Many are going to call this a test game and use the results as a way to judge the Lakers “realness” as their schedule gets harder. My bigger thing is the process they show rather than the results of this game. If the Lakers play hard, play focused, and show a high commitment defensively, I’ll be happy win or lose. I’ll be happier if they win, though.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.
*All stats via stats.nba.com