How LeBron James and the Lakers are planning to end Denver's dominance against them

Los Angeles, California March 2, 2024-Nuggets Aaron Gordon drives between Austin Reaves.

The outline hasn’t really differed much in their past seven meetings, the four from last year’s Western Conference Finals and the three chances for revenge that the Lakers couldn’t grab.

Generally, the game has been close, the Nuggets will then get into their late-game offense, and the game won’t be close anymore.

Thursday, the problem-solving phase of the Lakers’ preparation began, the late-game struggles against Denver obviously a piece of that planning.

“Well, we just gotta be better all around. Obviously, it's a great team that we're playing against,” LeBron James said. “A team that won the championship, so they've been in a lot of big games and know what they want to get to late in games. So we just have to be very disciplined and have our mind into throughout the course of 48 minutes or however long it takes.

“It's gonna be challenging, but that's what the postseason is all about. It should be.”

Read more: Analysis: Lakers frustrated they can't beat Nuggets, and the problem is getting worse

So far, the Lakers haven’t been able to handle the Denver challenge — providing the series with plenty of easy-to-find storylines.

One of those is the Nuggets' late-game proficiency, where they’ve been able to seemingly make every big shot in every big moment to close the Lakers out.

“it’s a combination of a couple different things. That’s why I mentioned consistent discipline with our execution, make sure we get the right shots that we know makes us that much more hard to guard,” coach Darvin Ham said of the late-game problems. “And give them credit. They had different guys step up and make big shots for them. We’ve had unfortunate turnovers, unfortunate missed blockouts. And they’re a championship team. So, you have to do the little things.

“The intangibles have to be on point.”

Nuggets forward Peyton Watson celebrates after dunking on the Lakers during a Denver win on March 2.

D’Angelo Russell, the star of another storyline after being essentially played out of the series a year ago, said his focus all year has been, in part, on some intangibles for postseason moments like this.

Last year against the Nuggets, Russell averaged just 6.3 points and 3.5 assists while making only two of 13 from three — his worst playoff series of his career.

“Obviously, I do more on the offensive end, but trying to stay valuable on the floor in the guts and crunch of the game,” Russell said. “Trying to be on the floor because I can hold my own, for sure."

Russell said he’s going to try to pull back from the narratives around him and the Nuggets as he prepares for the series.

"I don't even think like that. I try to think less, try to treat it like it's the first game of the season, how it was a bunch of hype when we played Denver again,” he said. "My approach was just care less, be free, be a butterfly out there, just float and I'll find myself in a comfort zone that's been working for me lately."

Though Russell scored only 11 points that game, he did finish as a plus-1 while on the court.

The Lakers should have help behind him with Gabe Vincent and Spencer Dinwiddie, two physical defenders who play a style that the Lakers lacked a year ago.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic shoots over Lakers forwards Anthony Davis, center, and Rui Hachimura.

“They force you to play a certain way. They play a really good brand of basketball. You just can’t get bored with the game,” Vincent said of Denver. “So you got to trust it, trust the process of it because they’re going to play their way the entirety of the game and they outlast a lot of people. So it’s going to be a hard-fought game. It’s going to be a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

Then there are the unlikely parallels between James and Nikola Jokic, players with different physical impacts on the game who can control it with their passing.

“When you have the ability to score at will, it makes your passing even more dynamic. We've had great passers in our league history. We've had great guys that are very unselfish. But if that's all you can do, then teams can try to force you to score and kind of take that away,” James said. “Guys like Luka [Doncic], Magic [Johnson] in his prime, Joker, myself, if you try to take away our passing, we can still be effective. That's what makes us so dynamic.”

And so hard to stop.

It’s why the series is more about problem-solving than it is about score-settling.

Read more: LeBron James has never been NBA defensive player of the year — and it really bugs him

“It shouldn't be personal at all. I think you allow yourself to get away from the game plan when you make it too personal. We have a game plan. You go out there and execute it and you live with the results,” James said. “… You gotta just stay even-keeled. There's gonna be a lot of swings throughout the course of the game, throughout the course of a series. And it's how long you can just keep your mind even-keeled and keep the main thing the main thing.

“They're a great team. We know what we're capable of. But the game is not won in the transcripts. The game is won in between the four lines. And that's all that matters.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.