Lakers can't solve the Nuggets until they solve the Kings

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 6, 2024: Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) battles Sacramento Kings forward Domantas Sabonis (10) for a rebound in the fourth quarter on March 6, 2024 at Arena in Los Angeles, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The similarities are too obvious to ignore. Sacramento, like Denver, has an unselfish center who is an expert passer. Sacramento, like Denver, has a point guard who can score at all three levels — in the paint, at the midrange and from three. Sacramento, like Denver, has shooting all around the perimeter.

And Sacramento, like Denver, keeps beating the Lakers.

“They're a high-level team, man,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of the Kings on Tuesday. “The beautiful thing about it — well, losing to them is not beautiful — but when you experience a game against them or any other team that forces you to do something different, it allows you to add something to the war chest. And allows you to get better in different areas.”

There’s optimism ahead of the Lakers’ game in Sacramento with the Kings on Wednesday that the defensive answers they’re searching for could at least be translatable to Denver.

The Kings have won six of their last seven games against the Lakers. Denver, of course, has won eight consecutive against the Lakers, including last season’s four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals.

The Kings don’t have a player as dominant as Nikola Jokic, but Domantas Sabonis is somewhat of an avatar. Jokic and Sabonis are fourth and fifth, respectively, in assists this season. And both players are paired with a dynamic guard and ample shooters.

Read more: Plaschke: Good Lakers? Bad Lakers? It's impossible to predict where this team is heading

In the last seven games the Lakers have played against the Kings, De’Aaron Fox has torched the defense. He’s averaged 32.6 points over the last two seasons against Ham’s defense and is coming off a 44-point game in Los Angeles last week.

“Sabonis, his playmaking ability, his passing, playing downhill, playing to the paint. His physicality. And De'Aaron, the shots you want to try to give up, he's the master at — those midrange, contested twos, he hits those in his sleep,” Ham said. “So, definitely, we've got to be ready to play. We've got to be … the details, really focused and stay consistent with the details."

The style the Kings (and Nuggets) play contrasts with the Lakers, who rely heavily on LeBron James and Anthony Davis to create mismatches and advantages with their supreme one-on-one edges.

“Everything they do is systematic. That's a credit to their coaching, their players, their style of play," D'Angelo Russell said of the Kings. "When you look at Denver and compare them [to Sacramento], it's a great comparison. It's only a few teams in the league that have a system in play. A lot of other teams may have star power, so it's kind of hard to implement a system because their stars are too good. That's what you see here. You're not gonna have Bron and AD wasting motion for the next guy. We don't need them to do that.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis, left, tangles with Kings center Domantas Sabonis for a rebound.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis, left, tangles with Kings center Domantas Sabonis for a rebound during last week's game. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“A lot of teams, it's hard for them to implement that. So for them to find a way to implement a system with the players they have, you see it complements the game.”

One way to slow Sabonis? Get him off the court with foul trouble. The Kings are 5-10 in the 15 games where he’s played 33 minutes or less.

“You take Sabonis off the floor, they're a different team. You take Jokic off the floor, they're a different team,” Russell said. “Foul troubles can get them off the floor. Just things like that that I feel like you have to actually attack when you play that team, those teams, because they're so dominant. Like I said, their systems are run through their bigs. So that would help us. It would be in our favor, for sure.”

Against the Kings — and the Nuggets — the Lakers need to find answers.

“It's something we need to solve,” Ham said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.