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Preview: Nuggets take on the Lakers in the first of 17 consecutive must-wins

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Every game is important. Don’t lose to the teams worse than you, especially at home.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets play 17 more games. They are 35-30. I predicted that Denver would need to finish with 46 wins to feel comfortable about their playoff outlook. That means the next 17 games would need to end in an 11-6 record or better. That’s pretty difficult when the Nuggets still face the Toronto Raptors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, and the Minnesota Timberwolves twice. That’s six games against teams with 37+ wins right now, meaning the margin for error with Denver is incredibly small.

The Nuggets play seven more home games this season. The first of those seven comes against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have a 29-35 record, but throw out any preconceived notions about who the Lakers are and whether the Nuggets have an advantage or not. The Lakers are a completely different team than they were just one month ago. Out are Larry Nance and Jordan Clarkson. In is Isaiah Thomas, who adds a different dimension to the Lakers’ bench.

Denver struggles with small guards that can break them down and out quick Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. They also struggle with scoring big men that can space the floor and/or out quick Nikola Jokic. The first is very representative of Isaiah Thomas, and the second represents Brook Lopez, who dominated last night to the tune of 27 points on 12/18 from the field.

Denver will need to get some stops defensively in this one, and the way they have played defense lately, it’s hard to call this a guaranteed victory, even with the Lakers coming to altitude.

The Basics

Who: Los Angeles Lakers (29-35) at Denver Nuggets (35-30)

When: 7:00 PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO

How to watch: Altitude TV

Rival Blog: Silver Screen and Roll

Projected Starters

Point Guard: Lonzo Ball vs Jamal Murray - advantage: even

Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope vs Gary Harris - advantage: Nuggets

Small Forward: Kyle Kuzma vs Wilson Chandler - advantage: even

Power Forward: Julius Randle vs Paul Millsap - advantage: even

Center: Brook Lopez vs Nikola Jokic - advantage: Nuggets

LA Bench vs Denver Bench - advantage: Nuggets

(Brandon Ingram is out with a groin injury)

Three Keys to Victory:

Play fast and with purpose. The Lakers are actually a good defensive team. They are 11th in the NBA in defensive rating, and Lonzo Ball is a major part of that. He’s a stout defender, especially for a rookie, and taking transition opportunities and forcing mismatches early is the best way to counter a great defender at the point of attack. If the Nuggets score 18+ fast break points tonight, I predict that they will win this game. They average 13.8 per game, and the Lakers average 12.6 opponent fast break points per game.

Limit open threes. Lonzo Ball is taking a ton of threes, and neither Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, nor Lopez are shy about jacking up shots. If Denver forces them into a three-point shooting contest, the shots must be contested. The Lakers, especially with Thomas off the bench, are capable of going off for 110+ points easily.Limiting open threes and closing out hard on shooters will alleviate some of that.

Keep going to the Joker. Nikola Jokic dominated on Wednesday night, and Denver needs to figure out where his scoring limit is. A good matchup begets more shot opportunities for Jokic but Lopez isn’t the best matchup for Jokic’s skill set. Still, the Nuggets should force the Lakers to collapse their defense so that Jokic can kick out to shooters and cutters himself. The rest of the team will feed off of Jokic’s aggressive scoring in my opinion, and it’s key for them to see him have success because the entire team’s confidence rises.

Prediction

Nuggets win this one 115-103 after the Lakers cut the lead to four points late, but Denver’s offense comes alive after Jokic turns on the scoring late.

Pregame audio: Michael Malone