After dispatching the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors with four wins in six games, the Lakers have their collective target locked on the Denver Nuggets, who they prepared for during Monday morning practice in Mile High City.
Arriving in Colorado on Sunday night for an extra day to acclimate to the altitude, LA began breaking down a Nuggets squad that includes just three players from the 2019-20 WCF game in the bubble the Lakers won 4- 1.
“They’re a better team,” LeBron James said. “Obviously, more experienced. Every game, every postseason, every game keeps you growing as a franchise, as a team, and they did. We come with the greatest respect for this team – we are looking forward to the game.
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are the three postponed; it’s actually one more than the Lakers, with just LeBron and Anthony Davis in Orlando. With help from Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee at the time, AD and LeBron were key in limiting Jokic to 21.8 points on 53.2% FG, with 7.2 boards and 5.0 assists in 33 .4 minutes, when he was in big trouble.
Since then, Jokic has grown considerably as a player, with a pair of MVP awards to show for it. Most recently, he averaged 30.7 points on 54.9% FG with 12.8 boards and 9.7 assists in 37.7 minutes in a 4-1 win over Minnesota plus a 4- 2 against Phoenix.
“Everyone knows how great (Jokic) is,” said Darvin Ham. “We need to mix up the pitches – AD will start on him, but we have a few different guys who will see the action against him…we’ll do everything we can to do our job early and keep him off balance.”
LeBron kept it simple when asked about the difference in Jokic’s game: “He kept getting better.”
And yet, as formidable as Jokic is offensively, the Lakers have the best defensive player in the world – Davis, of course – to deploy in his direction. They also have several players – including Davis, LeBron and three point guards – to attack Jokic at the other end of the court. Jokic is far from a rim protector in the classic sense, and while the Nuggets plan to keep opponents out of the paint, they’re struggling to stop those coming home.
Team LeBron and AD’s ability to reach and protect the paint was a huge key in their combined 6-1 playoff record, with the only loss coming when Davis was injured in Game 4 of the playoff series. round 1 of 2021. against Phoenix, with LAL 2-1 at the time.
“It all comes down to health for me and AD and this franchise when we joined four years ago,” LeBron summed up.
Clearly, he has considerable confidence in their ability to be the first to win four games against an opponent, both due to their talent on the pitch, as well as their ability to make key adjustments. LeBron has seen it all.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he admitted. “Being able to make adjustments between games, within the game as well. Because you come into a series, everyone knows everyone else. It’s not like you come in with new attacking sets, new defensive sets and new staff It’s the same staff that were there, but being able to make timely adjustments between games is very helpful for our ball club.
The Lakers made a big adjustment in Game 6 against Golden State, starting Dennis Schröder in place of Jarred Vanderbilt, which really opened things up for the LA offense. LeBron and AD have stepped up to carry more of a defensive and bouncing charge in this lineup; but they have more than capable help off the bench in this setup, with Vanderbilt joining Rui Hachimura up front, and the Lonnie Walker IV continuing to emerge as a backup guard.
Will the Lakers stick with this small group, forcing Jokic to defend Davis and making it difficult for Porter Jr. and Murray to find matchups? Can this LA group bounce back enough against a great Denver team? Will they go back to Vanderbilt, or even try Hachimura to fill the plus size shot? We will see.
Having options in a playoff is a good thing, and Darvin Ham and LeBron’s combo has found the right answers so far throughout Round 2 as they look to do it again in the WCF. “I’m grateful that we have a versatile squad, a versatile formation ourselves, lots of capable players, and then just play game by game,” Ham said. “You can’t speculate too much before the whistleblower even happens, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. We have a solid plan. We’ve watched a ton of movies, so we’ll go out and see what that first game looks like, and obviously adjust in-game if necessary.