The Lakers 7 game road trip ended with a fun win over the Hawks, pushing the team’s record to 5-2 on the trip and allowing the team to keep pace with the surging Clippers and Jazz at the top of a competitive Western Conference. The Lakers are 3rd in the West right now, which is fine. I hope to see them go on a run soon and with a homestand coming, maybe that happens now. We’ll see with the Nuggets in town tonight.
Denver, of course, is a really good team that we should all be familiar with by now. The Lakers playoff win over the Nuggets in a wonderful series was great viewing and, while the Lakers clearly showed their superiority, there were several games that were close and angst inducing.
In saying all that, I’m not going to go deep into the matchups this series, save for one: Nikola Jokic vs. the Lakers big men. If there was a matchup that the screams “this is why the Lakers got Marc Gasol” this is the one. Yes, you can also point to Embiid here, but Joel resides in the East and any matchup with Philly would be in the Finals. Jokic is in the Lakers conference and this matchup could happen as early as the 2nd round under the current standings an could even be a 1st round battle should a certain amount of chaos ensue.
So, Marc vs. Nicola is something to keep our eyes on. Particularly since Jokic is playing at an MVP level this year and since last year’s primary defender of him from the Lakers roster is now Embiid’s backup in Philly. Marc should be fine defending Jokic in the post, where his big body and craft matchup well.
Where things could get trickier is when Jokic spaces higher on the floor, be it in standard delay sets where he’s an offensive initiator or in pick and pop situations where Gasol will need to stick at the point of attack vs. Murray (and Monte Morris and, at times, Michael Porter Jr.) and then make decisions about recovering to the arc on Jokic or switching onto the ball handler.
These types of defensive possessions are where the Lakers have struggled most this season, where communication has broken down between the defensive partners tasked with making decisions on whether to hedge and recover, switch outright, or hedge + stay and then have the perimeter player peel back to the popping big man. Denver will test the Lakers communication here over and over again, not just in the P&R, but in handoff actions that are so key to their offensive flow. I’m interested in seeing how Gasol holds up in these sets, but also how the entire defense cooperates and moves together to slow these sets down.
Regarding the other bigs, I’m very interested to see how Vogel handles Trez’s minutes and his defensive assignments this game. We saw from the Nuggets comeback series win over the Clippers that Trez simply is not a good defender vs. Jokic. Nikola is too big, too crafty, and those discrepancies invite an attacking of Trez that is too difficult to compensate for over the course of extended minutes. Vogel, then, will need to make a decision: will he continue to use Trez is the defensive Center when Jokic is on the floor even if AD is in the game? I hope the answer to that is no, but I want to see it tonight.
The rest of this game interests me less, but there are, of course, still a bunch of matchups and X’s and O’s questions I have that will matter in determining who wins.
Who defends Bron from the Nuggets (especially now that Jerami Grant is in Detroit)? Who defends Porter Jr. from the Lakers (Kuz really struggled vs. him in the playoffs)? Can AD be the ace up the Lakers sleeve again as the player who can serve as a defensive answer to Jokic and the offensive question that Denver just doesn’t have answers for — particularly late in the game? How does the battle of the benches play out? Does Vogel stick with his 9-man rotation? If so, does the Caruso/THT/Kuz/Bron/Trez group still inflict the damage it did vs. the Celtics and Hawks? How does the Murray/Schröder matchup play out?
If several of these items swing in the Lakers favor, all the stuff I wrote about Jokic above may matter less. The Nuggets are a wonderful team, but if Bron/AD both prove to be keymakers and the Lakers bench plays well and Schröder can play Murray to a draw…that’s a lot for Denver to overcome. But, if Jokic goes off and that helps grease the wheels for Murray to have a big game and any two (or more) of Porter Jr., Barton, Harris, JaMychal Green, or Millsap have big games, the Lakers will have real issues.
Lastly, the first game back from a long road trip is always dicey. Players are often too relaxed/worn down from the long trip and it takes them some time to find the right level of competitiveness. Add in the Lakers struggles at home so far this year (4 of their 6 losses are at STAPLES) and there’s variables that have little to do with tonight’s opponent that concern me some. That said, this is a TNT game against another top Western Conference team, so my hope is that the Lakers come out ready to play at a high level.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and TNT.