Nuggets-Lakers preview: Can LeBron get L.A. past Denver? Who can stop Nikola Jokić?

The Western Conference’s second-seeded Denver Nuggets (57-25) will face the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers (47-35) in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. This is a rematch of the 2023 Western Conference finals, when the Nuggets swept the Lakers on their way to the championship.

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How the Nuggets got here

Denver owned the 2023 playoffs, winning 16 of its 20 games en route to the franchise's first NBA championship, dominance matched only by multi-time champions. The Nuggets acted accordingly in their title defense, keeping pace on cruise control with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves atop the West, even as Jamal Murray missed another third of a season with hamstring and ankle injuries.

It helps to have Nikola Jokić, who makes everything look and feel easy. He averaged 26.4 points (on 58/36/82 shooting splits), 12.4 rebounds and nine assists in 34.6 minutes over 79 games, submitting a league-best on/off differential of +23.7 points per 100 possessions, excluding garbage time, per Cleaning the Glass. Jokić should win a third MVP in one of the most dominant four-year runs in NBA history.

The Nuggets' starting lineup played more meaningful possessions (1,923) than any other five-man unit in the league this season and won every 100 of them by a juggernaut's average of 13 points. The quintet features a human dunker's spot (Aaron Gordon), a flame-throwing 6-foot-10 forward (Michael Porter Jr.) and a 3-and-D guard who may as well have been manufactured for this specific role (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). They are an orchestra on offense and pretty damn good on defense (rated eighth as a team).

Denver entered its final two games in need of wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies in order to secure the West's No. 1 seed. A rare crunch-time malfunction cost the Nuggets a victory against Victor Wembanyama and Co., and the result was a No. 2 seed that does not bother them too much.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - APRIL 16: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket as Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans defends during a play-in tournament game at the Smoothie King Center on April 16, 2024 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

How the Lakers got here

The Lakers mostly ran back the roster that made a surprise run to the West finals, where they were swept by the Nuggets, re-signing Austin Reaves, D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt for a combined $189 million. They spent salary cap exceptions on a hodgepodge of Gabe Vincent, Jaxson Hayes, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish and Christian Wood. There was no big swing for a third superstar.

The Lakers rolled to the NBA's inaugural in-season tournament championship in December, hanging a banner for their efforts. Maybe this team really could flip a switch when it needed to, even if the Lakers had registered two play-in tournament appearances and a 33-win season since winning the 2020 title.

Except, the wheels fell off again. They were a sub-.500 team at the end of January, despite healthy All-Star campaigns from LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It seemed as though the players wanted head coach Darvin Ham fired for his rotations, and then a funny thing happened on their way to another play-in appearance. The Lakers made the novel decision to start their more effective players (Hachimura and Reaves) over their less effective ones (Reddish and Prince) and finished the season with a 23-10 stretch.

Eleven wins in their final 14 games left the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings in their dust, which meant the Lakers needed only Tuesday's play-in win over the New Orleans Pelicans, who were without Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram down the stretch of a close contest, to nab this No. 7 seed.

Head to head

Denver swept the regular-season series, 3-0.

In a trio of marquee games, the two teams met on opening night, the night of the trade deadline and the night James scored his 40,000th point. Each time, the Lakers were left looking for answers. The Nuggets rolled to three wins by an average of 10 points, never trailed in the first two meetings and played without Caldwell-Pope in the final two meetings. There has been a running joke around league circles about how the Lakers' faithful has characterized the 2023 Western Conference finals as something like The Closest Sweep in NBA History, but this season should dispel any notion that both teams are on the same level.

Jokić and Murray were tremendous, averaging a combined 54-17-18 on 53/43/79 shooting splits against the Lakers. Not bad! Porter was an X-factor, scoring 21.3 points per game on 60.5% shooting against L.A.

After Denver completed the regular-season sweep, even James had to admit, "They have our number."

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 08:  Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets and Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Arena on February 08, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Can Anthony Davis slow down Nikola Jokić? (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Matchup to watch

Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokić

Davis is one of the most agile big men in the league, and he will likely finish among the top three for Defensive Player of the Year. And still Jokić did as he pleased. In 22:24 opposite Davis, Jokić collected 31 points (on 13-for-25 shooting from the field) and 16 assists as the hub of an outfit that generated 124.6 points per 100 possessions, per the NBA's tracking data — equivalent to the best offense in NBA history.

The Lakers tried the strategy of defending Jokić on the high post with Hachimura, freeing Davis to protect the rim, and Denver's supernova was even better, logging 35 points (on 16-for-23 shooting) and five assists for an offense that produced 132.7 points per 100 possessions in just under 12 minutes.

You cannot double-team Jokić, for he will find the open man, and apparently you cannot single-team him, either, so the Lakers kind of just have to hope Davis — the theoretical stopper — can be more disruptive.

That can tire Davis out on the offensive end. In the season opener, Davis scored 17 points on 6-for-17 shooting against the Nuggets, and in their third meeting, he scored four after halftime. He can disappear, whether by injury or effort, and the Lakers cannot afford any stretch of it. Davis has to be his best on both ends. He must fulfill his potential as someone we figured for a while would become an all-timer at his position. Make Jokić work on both sides of the ball or spend the summer wondering if you ever can.

Closing lineups

Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets will close with their starting lineup — Jokić, Murray, Gordon, Porter and Caldwell-Pope — unless Porter sinks into a slump. That group has also played the most fourth-quarter minutes of any lineup in the NBA and has outscored opponents by 6.1 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

That may not seem like a landslide, but Denver is the league's best-executing team in pivotal possessions. It is death by a thousand cuts, quite literally, as Jokić finds Murray on a handoff, Gordon for a lob, Porter on a flare or Caldwell-Pope in the corner. Jokić can also just bully his way to a spot and find a good shot.

James summed it up well earlier this season: “It's always kind of the fourth quarter, the last six minutes or the last few minutes of the game. They make plays, we don't make plays, and that can be frustrating.”

Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers, in all likelihood, will counter with their starting lineup of James, Davis, Reaves, Russell and Hachimura. That lineup has had tremendous success, finishing 24-9 in clutch situations (games within five points in the final five minutes) and outscoring opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions in fourth quarters. Those numbers are actually superior to Denver's starters, albeit in smaller sample sizes.

There is good reason for that success, too. They have James and Davis, after all, a lethal pick-and-roll combination. James has made a career out of plowing his way into the paint, and he will do it time and time again, even at 39 years old — off a Davis screen, in isolation or one followed by the other. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Lakers generate more crunch-time free throws than any other team.

Keep an eye on Vincent and Prince, too, if the Lakers are in need of more defense and versatility. Russell has a track record of going haywire, although he was tremendous in the Lakers' play-in tournament win, but Vincent has a history of rising to the moment for the Miami Heat. Likewise, Prince is a 10-year vet who makes few mistakes. Then again, if Ham is tinkering with his rotation, things are going south in L.A.


Nuggets in five. Have you been reading? The Nuggets are 11-3 against the Lakers in the last three seasons, including the playoffs, and one of those losses was on the final day of the 2021-22 regular season, when Bryn Forbes, Bones Hyland, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green and DeMarcus Cousins started for Denver. Giving the Lakers a game is kind, a tip of the cap to James and Davis, who should begin shopping for that third star soon enough.

Series odds

Denver Nuggets (-350)
Los Angeles Lakers (+275)

Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sat., April 20 @ Denver (8:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 2: Mon., April 22 @ Denver (10 p.m., TNT)
Game 3: Thu., April 25 @ Los Angeles (10 p.m., TNT)
Game 4: Sat., April 27 @ Los Angeles(8:30 p.m., ABC)
*Game 5: Mon., April 29 @ Denver (TBD)
*Game 6: Thu., May 2 @ Los Angeles(TBD)
*Game 7: Sat., May 4 @ Denver (TBD)

*if necessary