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Lakers will provide tough test for Nuggets in first round of NBA playoffs

The Nuggets are riding an eight-game winning streak against LA, but the Lakers are healthy and dangerous.
Lakers Nuggets Basketball
Posted at 9:08 PM, Apr 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-19 23:23:03-04

DENVER — "Yes, we've beaten them eight times in a row," Nikola Jokic said through a chuckle. "Can we not mention that anymore?"

The soon-to-be three-time MVP's laughter is not nervous, nor haughty. It's just the Joker's way of asking us to keep our eyes on the ball.

Standing on the precipice of one of the more highly-anticipated first-round playoff matchups in recent history, the NBA's hype machine is working overtime to draw eyeballs to games between a 2-seed and a 7-seed that shouldn't be particularly close.

But, again, don't tell that to Jokic.

"We [have been] really good since the All Star break, [but over] the last 15 games they are 12-and-3 so they are playing at a really high level," said Jokic. "I think it's going to be really interesting. There are no favorites. It could go both ways."

The Nuggets' eight-game winning streak over the Los Angeles Lakers spans two seasons and includes a sweep in the Western Conference Finals. During this season, the closest margin of victory between Denver and LA was eight points. If that spread gets tighter in the playoffs, head coach Michael Malone believes his team should have the advantage.

"I think when the game is tight in the fourth quarter, our guys are very comfortable and confident in what we're trying to do," said Malone. "We seem to be able to step up and make the right play and make big shots."

Denver finished second in clutch defensive rating and third in clutch offensive rating during the regular season, which is an improvement from last season when they were third in clutch defense and 13th in clutch offense.

Slowing down The King

After playing Game 3 of this first-round series against the Nuggets, LeBron James will have played a full 82-game-regular-season's worth of first-round playoff games. Over a grand total of 16 first-round playoff series, he's lost just one — in 2021 to the Suns — and his record in first-round playoff games is 62-17.

This is the most fresh we'll see The King and his merry band of Lakers for the entirety of this postseason, which puts a premium on playing well in Game 1.

"I think it's one of the most important games because it shows you the energy that the team is coming out with," said Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray. "It's a home game so we're going to be free, loose and ready to go. Ready to run, ready to bring all of that positive energy."

Murray expects the Lakers to be "forceful" in their Game 1 effort, saying their mentality of attempted larceny on Denver's home court allows them to play without fear.

To steal a game in the Mile High City, the Lakers will need to be less "Ocean's 11" and more "The Italian Job" — fast-paced, action-packed, all gas and no brakes.

"That starts with LeBron. He's a hell of a transition player," said Malone. "That's going to be where this series is won or lost — can you slow them down in transition and can you keep them out of the paint."

During the regular season, the Nuggets did a so-so job at slowing James, holding him just below his season average at 24 points per game in the three times they faced the Lakers. Perhaps the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer will find the rigors of postseason basketball to be fatiguing, but Malone isn't holding his breath.

"I hope he gets tired, I hope he wears down," said Malone. "But I've seen no signs of LeBron James slowing down by any means."

Let the Blue Arrow fly

In 23 career contests against the Lakers, Jamal Murray has averaged over 20 points and five assists.

If those numbers don't do it for you, how about this line from last year's Western Conference Finals: 32.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists on 52.7% shooting from the field over the course of four delightful games.

Calling Murray a "Lakers Killer" might be slightly hyperbolic, but statistical evidence proves that when the lights shine brightest, the Blue Arrow shows up in a way not many can muster.

"The way he elevates his game is just incredible," said Malone of his Canadian point guard. "I don't remember a player in recent memory who can play at that level [after the regular season]. You can't tell me that Jamal Murray isn't one of the best guards in the NBA, one of the best guards in the world. Maybe he's more locked in, maybe there's not back-to-backs, I'm not sure what it is. What I do know is that I love watching Jamal in the postseason."

I think all of Nuggets Nation agrees with the head coach there. Watching Murray express his talents on the biggest of stages is as sublime as watching Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.

Nikola Jokic will do MVP-type things, Michael Porter Jr. seems to be building toward a career crescendo in the playoffs, but Denver's hope of making quick work of the Lakers in the first round hinges on Jamal Murray's jumper.

"I just have a lot of confidence in our group, a lot of confidence in myself," said Murray. "A lot of confidence in Joker, a lot of confidence in my preparation for anything that's thrown our way. I find it fun. This is the competition right here, this is what it all comes down to."


Denver Nuggets

Nuggets to play Lakers in first round of playoffs; Game 1 is Saturday on Denver7

Landon Haaf
8:24 PM, Apr 16, 2024

Here's a look at how you can watch all of Denver's first-round playoff games against Los Angeles (all times MT):

  • Game 1: Lakers vs. Nuggets; Saturday, April 20 (6:30 p.m., Denver7)
  • Game 2: Lakers vs. Nuggets; Monday, April 22 (8 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 3: Nuggets vs. Lakers; Thursday, April 25 (8 p.m., TNT)
  • Game 4: Nuggets vs. Lakers; Saturday, April 27 (6:30 p.m., Denver7)
  • Game 5: Lakers vs. Nuggets; Monday, April 29 (TBD, TBD)* - if necessary
  • Game 6: Nuggets vs. Lakers; Thursday, May 2 (TBD, TBD)* - if necessary
  • Game 7: Lakers vs. Nuggets; Saturday, May 4 (TBD, TNT)* - if necessary

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