Lakers-Nuggets preview and prediction: Will Jokic and Murray’s dominance over LA continue or will the Lakers get revenge?

It’s been 490 days since the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets.

For some context, Russell Westbrook started that game for Los Angeles and had a triple double. Yeah its been THAT long since the Lakers recorded a win against the defending champion Nuggets.

A lot has changed since. The Lakers remade their roster at the 2023 trade deadline and went on to the conference finals, where the Nuggets swept them. The Lakers ran it back this past summer with largely the same roster, upgrading along the fringes with the likes of Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince and Jaxson Hayes. After a 24-25 start, the Lakers closed the season 23-10 and defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 Play-In to earn a rematch with the defending champions.

The one thing that hasn’t changed has been Denver’s dominance over the Lakers, particularly in the clutch. The No. 2 Nuggets have won eight straight games against the No. 7 Lakers, with five of those games being decided within the final five minutes. Denver enters this first-round matchup as heavy favorites. For many, the Lakers would be lucky to get a game.

But the Lakers are confident in their chances of pulling off the unthinkable. They’ve won 12 of 15 games, are the healthiest they’ve been all season and have developed an elite offense that should be able to match Denver’s shot-for-shot, at least for stretches. The Nuggets last beat the Lakers six weeks ago, just as Los Angeles was rounding into form and forging its identity. From the Lakers’ vantage point, the Nuggets haven’t seen this version of Los Angeles yet.

“It’s back to 0-0,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said Tuesday in New Orleans. “Obviously, they’ve had a ton of success against our ball club. But there’s always a new day.”

Ham rarely says anything meaningful or even anything that instills confidence, but he is right. All the past history means nothing in this fresh series.

The big Lakers question: Can they hold up against Denver in the clutch?

Lakers-Nuggets games follow a familiar script: The Lakers hang around until the last few minutes, at which point the Nuggets eviscerate them with elite two-way execution. Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray make all the big shots. The Lakers’ offense stagnates and struggles. The Nuggets win. Denver has outscored L.A. 45-23 in the 18 clutch minutes over the past eight matchups. (Those are defined as when the score is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining.) More specifically, the Nuggets have outscored the Lakers 27-10 in seven clutch minutes this season and 28-13 in 11 clutch minutes in the 2023 Western Conference finals.

Something about that Jokic-Murray two man game is something unstoppable, even if you have Lebron James and Anthony Davis countering it.

Those numbers don’t fully encapsulate the degree to which Denver has dominating the non-clutch final minutes as well (i.e. if Denver is up by more than six points in the final five minutes). Over the final five minutes of each of the three regular-season games this season, Denver has outscored Los Angeles 47-27. Frankly, the crunch-time gap has only grown wider since the conference finals. There is undoubtedly a psychological hurdle the Lakers will have to overcome to win this series.

The Nuggets’ starting and closing lineup — Jokić, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Murray — has an identity on both ends of the floor, with clear roles for each player. They’ve played more minutes than any lineup in the NBA over the past two seasons, which gives them a continuity edge over every opponent. The ball flows through Jokić and Murray, who have the best two-man game in the league. Porter and Caldwell-Pope cut, move and spread the floor. Gordon hangs along the dunker spot on the baseline, awaiting lobs, duck-ins and offensive rebounds. Defensively, Caldwell-Pope and Gordon handle the primary perimeter assignments, with Jokić, Murray and Porter playing solid team defense with their length and anticipation.

The Lakers don’t have that same luxury. They just settled on a starting lineup on Feb. 3. They’re missing their sixth-best player and best wing defender in Jarred Vanderbilt.

They don’t even have an obvious closing group. James, Davis, Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura should be locks against the Nuggets. Those were Los Angeles’ four best players against Denver in the conference finals. Beyond them, that fifth spot is open. D’Angelo Russell should be the choice, though he offers the Nuggets a clear target defensively. If the Lakers put him on Caldwell-Pope, that puts Reaves on either Murray or Porter, and could complicate how the Lakers defend the lethal Jokić-Murray two-man actions.

One easy adjustment for the Lakers is to not close games with Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish defending Murray, which they did in the regular season. Reddish shouldn’t be playing in this series. Prince shouldn’t be closing. Neither should be defending Murray. Murray scored a combined 25 points on 11-for-21 shooting when Prince and Reddish were his primary defenders this season.

Interestingly, the Lakers have been one of the best clutch teams in the NBA this season. They have the best win percentage (24-9, .727), the eighth-best offense, 13th-best defense and the ninth-best net rating in games where the score is within five points with five or fewer minutes left. The Nuggets, in contrast, are third in offense, second in defense and first in net rating.

In theory, L.A. should fare better in the clutch than in previous games. The key will be limiting their mistakes, of which there have been far too many.

“Have to play mistake-free basketball,” James said. “Make it tough on them. They’re going to try to make it tough on us, obviously.”

The big Nuggets question: How do they slow this version of LeBron?

Compared to last season, the Lakers’ biggest advantage entering this series is having this version of James.

Since the All-Star break, the 39-year-old James is averaging 27.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 9.5 assists to go along with shooting splits of 58.4 percent from the field, 45 percent from 3 and 76.9 percent from the free-throw line. His 3-point shooting, in particular, is at an entirely different level than it was last season — and especially where it was entering the Nuggets series. This season, James is shooting a career-best 41 percent on 3s. In last season’s conference finals, James shot just 26.9 percent on 3s.

That 14 percent difference is significant. James is unlikely to replicate his 41-percent mark in a physically grueling series, but if he can remain an above-average pull-up and catch-and-shoot weapon, the Nuggets will have to adjust their typical coverages.

The Lakers often spam James-Reaves pick-and-rolls late in games to target Murray, who Denver often tries to hide on Reaves. The Nuggets will usually go under the screen, which gives James enough time and space to gather and launch. If he’s hitting that shot consistently, it’ll open up more driving opportunities, which could lead to more paint points, fouls and kick-out 3s.

The Nuggets present a difficult challenge with Gordon, who’s one of the few wing defenders capable of matching James physically. Gordon is taller than James and just as strong, quick and athletic. He has a knack for cutting off James’ driving lanes, recovering well around screens and bumping James off course on the way to the rim.

Behind him, the Nuggets have one of the smartest team defenses in the league. Denver rotates on time, rarely making a mistake, in part because of their continuity and thousands of reps together. Jokić isn’t a liability the way he’s often labeled. He leads all centers in deflections and is among the league leaders overall.

Still, James is healthier than he was last season at the same point. He has his trademark burst and athleticism.

James has made it apparent in recent days that he’s ready to play as much and as hard as the Lakers need him to this series.

“Ain’t no more pace,” James said. “Pace yourself for what? It’s now a sprint. It’s a sprint now. We already went through the marathon. I’ll do whatever it takes. I mean, all the percentages and all that s—, it’s out the window. The season’s over. So it’s about just winning. Win the game.”

Lakers’ X-factor: D’Angelo Russell

Russell was unplayable against the Nuggets last postseason. His minutes decreased throughout the series until he was finally moved to the bench in Game 4 and played a playoff-low 15 minutes. For the series, he averaged 6.2 points on 32 percent shooting and 13 percent from 3. It was a fork-in-the-road moment that put Russell’s future in Los Angeles in doubt and brought up questions about his ability to flourish on the biggest stages. With Russell possession a player option to become a free agent again this summer, those questions will persist if Russell doesn’t play much better in this series.

The issue is that while he played better against Denver in the regular season — it was hard to play worse than the conference finals — he still wasn’t good. In the two Nuggets-Lakers games in which he played, Russell averaged 14.0 points on 40.0 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from 3. He was benched in the fourth quarter of the most recent matchup on March 2 for Reddish, indicating Ham could have a short leash with Russell this series.

There is no ideal hiding spot for Russell defensively; even Caldwell-Pope is an active cutter, screen and off-ball mover. Russell’s greatest weaknesses defensively are his screen navigation and his off-ball tracking, making him a prime defensive target in Denver’s split-cut, dribble hand-off and pindown-heavy sets. Russell has been the Lakers’ third-best player at times this season and is certainly their third-most important scorer and best shooter. But this could end up being more of a Gabe Vincent or Spencer Dinwiddie series given their superior defense.

Russell doesn’t have to be the regular-season version of himself to be useful. That’s unlikely with the tenacious Caldwell-Pope as his primary defender. But he needs to be at least 70 percent of that player. If he can do that and not be a glaring defensive minus, the Lakers should have a high enough offensive ceiling to win at least a game or two.

Nuggets’ X-factor: Michael Porter Jr.

While the Jokić-Murray two-man game deservedly draws most of the praise and attention, Porter’s presence as a 6-foot-10 sniper is part of what makes the Nuggets’ bread-and-butter offensive set such an unsolvable problem for defenses. If Porter has a sliver of space to catch and shoot, he’ll rise and launch with his 7-foot wingspan and high release point over virtually any defender. He’s shooting 42.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this season and 61.1 percent on those shots in the three games against the Lakers.

The Lakers don’t have a great defensive matchup for Porter. Hachimura can struggle off the ball, with screen navigation and closing out to shooters. Reaves, Russell and Vincent are all too small to contest him. Porter has easily shot over Prince in the regular-season matchups. Dinwiddie, who defended Porter down the stretch of the Feb. 8 matchup, might be the best choice.

Porter is especially dangerous in transition, where the Lakers have struggled defensively the last three seasons. They’ve improved late this season, but in addition to monitoring Jokić’s full-court pushes and the combination of Gordon and Caldwell-Pope running the lanes toward the rim, the Lakers will have to track Porter. They must have a good “limbo rate,” an internal metric the team uses to monitor how players shift from offense to defense, and vice versa. He has the green light to pull whenever open, and he’s often open.

It’s not just the shooting, though. Porter is a good cutter who will sneak behind unsuspecting defenders for dunks. Denver will also run him around screens as a misdirection for a Jokic-Murray dribble hand-off or pick-and-roll, with the confusion opening up cutting and driving lanes. He’s improved as a ballhandler, with straight-line driving capabilities if teams close out too aggressively.

It’s one thing to try to slow Jokic and Murray. But when those two are spraying out to Porter, his silky  jumper is often a back-breaker that demoralizes even the best defenses.

“You gotta get to him,” James said. “He’s a hell of a player, hell of a shooter. And when he’s on his A-plus game, they’re damn-near impossible to beat because you already have to account for Joker and Murray. So you just gotta keep your head on a swivel. Know where he’s at at all times on the offensive end. Don’t give him no airspace. And he’s still gonna make some of those. I mean, the kid is 6-foot-9 and he shoots at the top of his jump. A high release.

“But it’s the open ones. It’s the ones in transition. It’s the ones where you lose contact that in order for you to win a ball game, you can’t have.”

Series X-factor: Who are the matchup’s second- and third-best players?

One of the biggest factors that led to Denver sweeping the Lakers last season is the biggest variable: Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray were the two best players in the series.

Jokić being the best player, even better than LeBron James, who finished the series nearly averaging a 30-point triple-double, isn’t what broke the Lakers. By last season, Jokić was considered by many to be the best player in the world. But James and Anthony Davis needed to be the second- and third-best players in the series, and Murray was better than them on the margins with a tremendous display of scoring and playmaking. In a series ending with a sweep but also with three of the four games decided by six points or fewer, the margins mattered on a significant level, and Murray helped provide those with how much he was able to elevate his game.

James was good in last year’s series. He had 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Denver’s closeout win. But he didn’t take over and impose his will on the series like he has done so many times over the last two decades. Los Angeles has a slim chance of winning this year’s series, and that hope almost universally lies in James delivering an epic performance. He doesn’t have to be the best player in the series, but he can’t be the third- or fourth-best player — which is what he was last year.

Murray has outplayed James and Davis throughout these eight games.

This is a common lament of Lakers staffers when discussing the series. They understand Jokić is the best player in the world and the series. He’ll likely average a 30-point triple-double, or somewhere in that neighborhood. But if Murray goes off for 30-plus points on 50-40-90 shooting splits, like in last season’s playoff series, the Lakers won’t have a chance.

Scoring isn’t everything, but when there’s a heavyweight bout between two elite duos, offensive output is certainly an important factor. And Murray (32.5 points in the conference finals and 24.7 points in the regular season) has outscored James (27.8 points in the playoffs and 24.0 points in the regular season) and Davis (26.8 points in the playoffs and 22 points in the regular season). For the Lakers to have any chance in this series, that can’t happen again.

The Lakers need Davis to attack Jokić off the dribble and punish mismatches. James, as mentioned earlier, needs to leverage his athleticism to get downhill consistently while also mixing in doses of his improved outside shot. Los Angeles would also benefit from targeting Murray more on defense to exploit his limitations and potentially get him in foul trouble.

Also notable and related to Davis’ success: Denver has dominated the rebounding battle in most of these matchups. That’s been especially true this season, when they’ve grabbed 55.8 percent of the available rebounds. Davis has to clean the glass on both sides. That’s another swing factor.


It’s difficult to find a realistic path for the Lakers to win this matchup.

They don’t have the best player. They don’t have home-court advantage. They don’t have the physical advantage they possess over most opponents, since Denver is just as big, if not bigger. Denver has won eight straight games and has a superior statistical profile. They’re one of four teams that won more games than the Lakers since Feb. 1. All indications are they’re just the decisively better team.

At the same time, one should be cautious extrapolating the impact of the three regular-season matchups. The Lakers were starting Prince and were a much different team stylistically on opening night. Caldwell-Pope missed the final two matchups. Russell missed one of those games. Vincent missed both as well. These two starting lineups have yet to face each other this season.

Historically, the Nuggets are likelier to win this series in five or seven games. If I had to lean in one of those directions, I’d lean toward this being a five-game series. Picking the Lakers to win this series requires a rosy mental leap that overlooks the concrete results of the past two seasons. Nonetheless, the Lakers have played the Nuggets closer than that 8-0 mark would suggest, which is why they should be able to get at least one game, if not two.

Do I think the Nuggets are going to hit every fall away 3 pointer as the shot clock expires like they did in the conference finals last year? No I don’t. I think James and Davis will make it a point to be dominant in this series, each doing enough to win a game each. But until I see Jokic slayed, the league best player is who you have to bet your money on.

As much as it pains me to say, Denver in 6.

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