How the Nuggets beat LeBron and the Lakers again in the playoffs

Apr 17, 2024, 2:30 PM | Updated: 3:25 pm

The Denver Nuggets are looking to follow up their first championship in franchise history with a repeat, the path to that title starts with a heavyweight bout against the longtime rival Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nuggets are appearing in the playoffs for a sixth straight year and are coming off their winningest season since joining the NBA. Now, in three of the last five years Denver has met Los Angeles in the postseason with the the two matching up in the Western Conference Finals in 2020 and 2023. Last year’s series was an infamous Nuggets sweep, propelling the team to a debut appearance in the NBA Finals.

But there are certain things from that 2020 bubble series where LeBron James, Anthony Davis and crew downed Denver in five games en route to a championship, that the team might have gone back to learn from. Still, James and Davis are the only ones left in purple and gold from that ring-winning team. And the Nuggets lone time being healthy in the playoffs since 2020 was last year when they won it all.

Altogether, the two franchises have met in the postseason eight times before now with the Nuggets only win coming last spring. This year’s series will represent the third run-in between James and Nikola Jokic in the playoffs, making for a rubber match between two of the NBA’s greatest players of all time.

Summary of the Lakers

The champions of the inaugural In-Season Tournament, the Los Angeles Lakers won four more games than a season ago but still had to go through Play-In. Overall it was an up-and-down year for the Lake Show in year two under head coach Darvin Ham. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were healthy essentially the whole time all the while the rotation around them crumbled and Ham looked for answers and at times it looked like it might cost him the job.

The Lakers have had a far less chaotic season than last year when they rebuilt their entire team at the trade deadline. A year later their lone significant in-season move was picking up Colorado Buffaloes star and L.A. native Spencer Dinwiddie and he’s just a rotational piece of the bench. What he does offer is more size and that’s something the Lakers really looked to add this past summer. They picked up seven-footer Jaxson Hayes and stout forward Taurean Prince. Hayes is playing just a dozen minutes a game but is a useful body while Prince has been a sixth-man of sorts and his energy plus 40% three-point shooting has made him a useful addition. The Lakers also have enigmatic big Christian Wood, who underwent left knee surgery last month and his status is unknown for the series. A full season from Rui Hachimura has also helped the team integrate him more so than he was last spring. But the biggest signee last off-season for the Lakers is almost a complete unknown. They replaced Dennis Schroder with Gabe Vincent, who played against the Nuggets in the Finals for the Heat last year. The 6-foot-3 guard has played just 12 games including the play-in since he has been hurt a few times this year—but in that contest against the Pelicans, his nine bench points hint there’s something there.

Like last year, Ham will have to hunt for something that works in this series. The Nuggets may very well know the Lakers better than the visitors know themselves.

Lakers Projected Starting Five

PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: Austin Reaves
SF: LeBron James
PF: Rui Hachimura
C: Anthony Davis

Stars of the Lakers

LeBron James, positionless, 6-9, 71 GP, 25.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.3 APG, 54% FG/41% 3FG/75% FT
Anthony Davis, big, 6-10, 76 GP, 24.7 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 56% FG/27% 3FG/82% FT

LeBron James is one of the greatest players, if not the greatest player ever. Now in his 21st season, James isn’t the same player he was ten or even five years ago, heck maybe even a season ago. The NBA’s leading scorer is getting about five points fewer a night than he did just two years ago. But the now 39-year-old is shooting the three better than he ever has and is back to distributing the ball like one of the best passers in the sport. James no doubt still has flashes of dominance and in last year’s series against the Nuggets, he turned it up. Nearly averaged a triple-double but he was completely out of gas as he played all but four seconds in Game 4 of the series and Denver made a massive 36-16 run while James was coasting.

It’s fair to say that it’s actually Davis who needs to be the best player if they have any shot at dethroning Denver. The oft-injured AD played a career-high amount of games this season and is still one the better players in the sport. He’ll likely finish as one of the candidates for this year’s Defensive Player of the Year honor as he had the fourth-most blocks per contest at 3.5. The one-time power forward has aged into a center and his stretching the court on offense is more a thing of the past as he only hoisted one triple a game this year.

The Lakers are a bit bigger this year which will be huge in the series but still not large enough to move Davis back to the power forward which has proven to give Los Angeles the best results against Denver. Back in the bubble, the Nuggets top problem was what was around the duo, primarily the Lakers bigs. Denver’s star big man Nikola Jokic has done well against Davis when he’s been the biggest man on the floor—if the Lakers can find a way to play big and shift James and Davis down positions they’ll have a real shot in the series.

Series X-factor for the Lakers: D’Angelo Russell

The Lakers went 16-3 when Russell scored 24 or more points this season and his 21 points on five threes was huge in their play-in win over the Pelicans. The former All-Star needs to step up and be the third banana to James and Davis for the Lakers to have any shot and that’s even with them going big.

D’Lo, the team’s starting PG, was played off the floor in last year’s conference finals to the point where he didn’t even start Game 4. Russell scored just 25 points in the entire series, shooting an awful 32% from the field and was limited to 3.5 assists a game as well.

A lot of the defense on him last year came from Bruce Brown, so it’ll be a big task for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Christian Braun to slow down Russell.

Nuggets Projected Starting Five

PG: Jamal Murray
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Michael Porter Jr.
PF: Aaron Gordon
C: Nikola Jokic

Series X-factor for the Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.

People forget this but MPJ is 6-foot-10 and one of the best shooters in NBA history. In three games against the Lakers, Porter had a +29 NET rating which is his top mark against anyone in the league this season. He averaged 21 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per contest while hitting 11 of his 21 threes and picking up a total of five STOCKS. Porter’s rebounding and assists numbers were better against the Lakers per game than they were against any other West team.

Porter’s shooting, rebounding and a touch of playmaking and rim protection was similar in last year’s playoff series against the Lakers. And when he’s playing like that, the 6-foot-3 Russell won’t be able to handle him. That can force James to exert more on defense or possibly weaken coverages for Jamal Murray. The Blue Arrow torched for 32.5 points per game in last year’s series.

MPJ both unlocks the Nuggets offense with his spacing and his size is pivotal for a rebounding battle between the league’s second-best defensive rebounding team in the Lakers and the overall seventh-best windex-ing team in Denver.

What to expect from Nikola Jokic

The soon-to-be three-time MVP and reigning Finals MVP provided some of his most iconic moments during last year’s series against the Lakers. Jokic seemingly got every shot to fall against Los Angeles, including Sombor Shuffle heaves from three to beat the clock over Davis—which happened multiple times.

The Lakers bulked up after the series to try to slow the Joker. Here’s how that worked out.

In the four-game sweep, Jokic averaged 42 minutes 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists a game on 51/47/78 shooting. This year in beating the Lakers three times, he averaged 37 minutes, 29.3 points, 12.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists on 55/38/80 shooting. Notice anything different? No, not really. So we haven’t seen anything from the Lakers yet to prove they can impact Nikola. He will likely take Los Angeles to the woodshed again. Look for the Lakers to try to burden Jokic’s legs by attacking the rim on offense and using big bodies like Hayes to play Nikola physically whenever possible.

How the Nuggets can beat the Lakers

With MPJ playing the three, Aaron Gordon at the four and Jokic playing the five the Nuggets have a ton of size in the frontcourt. Couple the backcourt of Murray and KCP and Denver has the size at every spot on the floor. Simply the Nuggets have the size, speed, strength, star power and a more certain rotation than the Lakers.

The Lakers’ most used and starting lineup outplayed opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions this season, while the Nuggets starting five was a West-best +13. On the season the entire Lakers team had a very mid +0.6 NET rating, with both a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense. Denver’s offense finished fifth-best and the team’s defense was eighth-best by NET. Post All-Star Break the Lakers NET rating improved a bit but was still just 14th in the league while the Nuggets as a whole were second-best in the NBA at +9.8.

Look for the Nuggets to try to make this series a slog, Denver’s pace was fifth slowest in the league while the aging Lakers were very transition-reliant, with the league’s fourth-quickest pace. The Lakers scored the third-most fastbreak points in the NBA this year and had the second-most points in the paint. But Los Angeles had a league-worst mark in second-chance points and was the last-place team in offensive rebounding.

Denver should have no problem slowing the game down while matching the Lakers scoring in the paint. So long as it doesn’t end in too many more fouls for the Nuggets this should play out well. The Lakers relied on scoring the NBA’s sixth-most 16% of their points from the free throw line while Denver’s 13.2% of points from the stripe was the fifth-lowest mark in league history.

The Lakers used 21 players this season and 11 played more than 15 minutes a game to Denver’s 17 players used and just eight played 15 or more minutes a game. This shows Denver is more certain of what they have and who they are, an underrated factor come the postseason.

Oh and as for LeBron and Davis… Jokic is the best player in this series in 2024, and it’s not close. And a lot of times in basketball—having the best player wins you a series, as we saw last summer.

Another few things you should know about Nuggets vs Lakers

Austin Reaves is one of many Lakers who lives at the free-throw line. Reaves will be a factor in this series and so too will be the whistle. Going back to the bubble for a moment, below are what the refs called fouls on Jokic during the 2020 series. And yes, LeBron and the Lakers sent the NBA a letter complaining about how Los Angeles wasn’t getting enough calls in that series. The Lakers shot the second-most free throws in the league this year, at 24.2 a contest—Denver had the second-fewest at 19.9 a night.

Former Nuggets draft pick Jarred Vanderbilt has been a really active player for the Lakers at times but has bounced in and out of the lineup. At times he’s proven to be an important defensive player who can hit the glass pretty hard but he has not played since Feb. 1.

Another connection is on-ball defender and three-point sharpshooter Caldwell-Pope of the Nuggets, who won that bubble title in 2020 with the Lakers. DeAndre Jordan was on the Lakers two seasons ago for a time. But the biggest connection may be Michael Malone, who worked as an assistant coach from 2005-2010 for LeBron’s Cavs. Malone’s dad Brendan, also coached James for a period and the NBA great has a deep respect for the Nuggets coach and his late father.

Speaking of daddies

The public address announcer at the Nuggets championship parade said Malone became the Lakers daddy when the team swept Los Angeles. James responded with a cryptic message on social media. But that only came after he weakly dropped hints about retiring after the sweep and took attention away from the Nuggets accomplishment. Though “The King” did give some praise to Denver at the time of defeat.

Ham then joined in and said it wasn’t over between the Lakers and Nuggets, giving a fake bless your heart back Denver’s way. And then there were the conversations Davis said he and LeBron had in the summer about beating the Nuggets. Denver has gone on to beat them on Opening Night, Kobe’s Statue Day and a third time against Denver in SoCal this season.

A big thing in the best-of-seven will be how Braun fills in for the since-departed Brown. The now Raptor had three games of double-digit scoring coming off the bench while Braun struggled and was eventually benched before having a huge series in the Finals. Can Braun rise? Over the final 16 games he seemed to find a new level, scoring nine points a night while adding 4.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists a contest in addition to great defense.

The last thing to watch is the injury report. James has been dealing with an ankle injury for weeks and Davis often finds his way into a questionable designation. The big man suffered back spasms against the Pels on Tuesday.

Schedule of the series

April 20: Game 1, 6:30 p.m. (ABC), Denver
April 22 Game 2, 8 p.m. (TNT), Denver
April 25: Game 3, 8:00 p.m. (TNT), Los Angeles
April 27: Game 4, 6:30 p.m. (ABC), Los Angeles
April 29: Game 5, TBD (TBD), Denver *
May 2: Game 6, TBD (TBD), Los Angeles*
May 4: Game 7, TBD (TNT), Denver *

Series odds

Nuggets: -375
Lakers: +300


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