Lakers-Nuggets factors: Who stops Nikola Jokić? Can D’Angelo Russell be impactful?

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Lakers-Nuggets factors: Who stops Nikola Jokić? Can D’Angelo Russell be impactful?

What was expected is now official.

With Tuesday night’s Play-In Tournament victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Los Angeles Lakers secured the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. With it comes a matchup against the No. 2 seed and defending champion Denver Nuggets. Game 1 is Saturday before a primetime nationally televised audience at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

But what are the key factors for this rematch? Last year, the teams met in the Western Conference finals and it wasn’t close as the Nuggets swept the Lakers. The Nuggets have won eight consecutive games against Los Angeles with many of those following the same script: games are close until the clutch-time possessions, where Denver has a significant advantage.

So, what’s in store? Can the Lakers win? Can they even be competitive? Here are some thoughts on what could happen, along with some of the advantages and challenges that each team will face.

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.

This has to be said because Denver has the combination of the top-end talent of Jokić and Murray, as well as the depth of the remainder of a starting lineup that has made the Nuggets the favorite to come out of the Western Conference. The Lakers simply have to find a way to not allow Murray, who averaged 32.5 points, 6.3 boards, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals on .527/.405/.950 shooting splits in the Nuggets’ sweep, to dominate. He’s going to make shots, but he can’t be allowed to impose his will.

There lies the challenge for Los Angeles — and the advantage for Denver. The Lakers don’t have a matchup, defensively, for Murray. Their guards were torched last year. There doesn’t seem to be an answer on paper this time around. It gives the Lakers one chance of having to beat the Nuggets with superior offense. But the Nuggets, along with their ability to defend and get stops, have one of the best offenses in the league.

It all becomes so difficult, as a result.

No better time for the Lakers

Some on social media argued it would be prudent for the Lakers to try and avoid the Nuggets for as long as possible. The opposite is true. For the Lakers, the best time is now, in the first round, right out of the gate.

James and Davis showed fatigue last season after grueling series with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors. The wear and tear entering the playoffs this time around will be less. The Lakers get three days off before Saturday’s Game 1. There is a one-day turnaround to Game 2, then multiple days of rest before Games 3 and 4.

Why is this more impactful for Los Angeles? The Lakers are the older team, and Denver is the team that can play through more wear and tear.

On Sunday, James turned in a masterpiece against the New Orleans Pelicans, dropping a 28-point triple-double. On Tuesday, on one day of rest, James still played well and controlled large parts of the game, but he made 6 of 20 from the field and had a subpar fourth quarter. He couldn’t get to his spots off the dribble, and that allowed New Orleans to rally from a significant deficit and almost steal the game.

There’s a clear difference between a rested James and a fatigued James; the advantage for the Nuggets is that they hardly show signs of fatigue. If you are the Lakers, you don’t want to see Denver deeper in the playoffs, when the series go every other day. You want to see them when you have multiple intervals of having more than one day of rest. It still may not be enough, but it should at least provide a glimmer of hope.

Get the youngsters ready

Christian Braun is less immune to this than Peyton Watson, because Braun became more of a part of Nuggets head coach Michael Malone’s rotation last season as the playoffs progressed. Braun is a couple of rungs up the importance ladder, and Watson is headed to his first postseason as one of the main guys. On some level, they both are going to be schemed for and prepared for and the Nuggets need a positive reaction from them.

Specifically, you can be sure the Lakers will send extra help to defend Jokić and Murray whenever Watson is on the floor, so he is going to have to take and make the open shots that come his way. The Lakers will test Braun in much the same way, although the second-year forward from Kansas is more polished offensively.

Denver fans should have limited, if any, worry about the two defensively. Both are playmakers on that end; Watson is a sensational defender in the making. Don’t be shocked to see Watson give James issues on that end. He’s that good on that side of the ball. But you can bet James will play a lot of center field if Watson can’t make shots. It’s important to the Nuggets that both Watson and Braun score, because both are important to what the Nuggets want to accomplish this spring.

Expect Denver’s rotation to be nine deep in the postseason. There will be the starting five. There will be Watson and Braun. There will be Reggie Jackson as the backup point guard and veteran wing Justin Holiday, who has proven to be valuable off the bench. Expect Aaron Gordon to play the center spot in the minutes Jokić goes to the bench. It worked like a charm last playoff, so there is no reason to deviate from that.

D’Angelo Russell (1) will need to play better than he did in last season’s Western Conference finals. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

Russell, the Lakers’ dynamic point guard, could not stay on the floor in the series against the Nuggets last year. He didn’t defend well, and that allowed Murray to get into a rhythm. It affected Russell offensively, and the Lakers couldn’t compensate for it. His inability to defend and the point of attack will cause all sorts of matchup issues for the Lakers if they can’t figure it out this time.

As a whole, the Nuggets are a real matchup problem for the Lakers. Russell on Murray? Probably not good for the Lakers. Austin Reaves? Definitely not. James? Not for more than a possession or two. The Lakers will have to make a lot of shots.

The biggest issue: the bigs

Davis is one of the best defenders in the league. He’s a master as a rim protector. He defends most bigs well in isolation.

But he’s a mere fly against Jokić.

Davis hasn’t shown any ability to bother Jokić — or make him pause or make him go to a countermove or two. He doesn’t win many singular reps against Jokić. Because of that, the Lakers’ defense has been dead on arrival against the Nuggets. Last year, Los Angeles tried Rui Hachimura against Jokić, and that had limited success, until Jokić adjusted and started gleefully getting whatever he wanted offensively. James had some defensive isolation success against Jokić, but the Lakers don’t want to resort to that option full-time.

That puts the onus on Davis. And while we know it’s hard to stop Jokić, Davis doesn’t even seem to contain him. It’s the biggest reason the Nuggets have had the levels of success against Los Angeles. Until Davis proves otherwise, don’t expect anything different.

(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)