The final game for the Denver Nuggets before the NBA All-Star break happens to be a big one. The Los Angeles Lakers, holders of the top seed in the Western Conference and armed with two superstars, are coming to town tonight to stake their claim on the West. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have formed one of the most fearsome duos the NBA has ever seen from a physical standpoint. Very few teams have the personnel to stop them.
That doesn’t mean the Nuggets won’t try, and it doesn’t mean the Nuggets don’t have their own unstoppable dup either. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have been outstanding during Denver’s four-game winning streak. Jokic has averaged 25.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists in his last four, which conveniently omits a spectacular performance against the Detroit Pistons in which he had 39, 10, and 11. Murray has averaged 28.3 points and 5.3 assists himself, shooting 48.4% from three-point range in the process. Both players are on fire.
When these two top teams in the West meet, it very well may be a Conference Finals preview. Having home court advantage matters in a playoff series, so this game hold some extra weight. If the Nuggets win this one, they assure themselves of not losing a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Lakers. Given that these two teams should finish with somewhere between 55 and 60 wins, that matters.
So, let’s see who wants it more right before the break:
Who: Los Angeles Lakers (40-12) vs Denver Nuggets (38-16)
Where: Pepsi Center | Denver, Colorado
When: 8:00 PM MT
How to Watch: ESPN, Altitude, NBA League Pass
Rival Blog: Silver Screen and Roll
Nuggets vs Lakers
|PG||Jamal Murray||LeBron James||Lakers|
|SG||Gary Harris||Avery Bradley||Even|
|SF||Torrey Craig||Danny Green||Nuggets|
|PF||Jerami Grant||Anthony Davis||Lakers|
|C||Nikola Jokic||JaVale McGee||Nuggets|
|BENCH||Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Jordan McRae, Keita Bates-Diop, Paul Millsap||Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Dwight Howard||Even|
Injuries: Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. are assumed out, though that is unconfirmed. Mason Plumlee is definitely out.
Three things to watch for
Size mismatch is something the Nuggets rarely have to deal with given Nikola Jokic is their center, but the Lakers are unique. LeBron James is always a matchup nightmare, while Anthony Davis has spent just 37% of his minutes at center this year, according to Basketball Reference, despite having the wingspan of a pterodactyl. Denver usually starts Paul Millsap at power forward, and Jerami Grant is probably best used as a LeBron matchup 1-on-1. Unfortunately for Denver, Millsap will probably come off the bench and Grant will be forced to guard Davis with Jokic on LA’s center. That creates a tough cover for all three of Torrey Craig (on LeBron), Grant, and Jokic. Can Denver manage it? Will they go down several points early? Will they play all three of Grant, Millsap, and Jokic together? It’s an interesting plot point.
Jokic’s post game is Denver’s most important outlet for late shot clock offense or when the Nuggets need to settle down. Against the Lakers in two previous matchups, Jokic spent most of his minutes being guarded by McGee and Davis. He has figured out how to score on McGee consistently, but Davis still gives Jokic some issues. How will Jokic handle that matchup when it inevitably comes in a late game situation? Can Jokic get Denver a bucket when needed? He has for most of the year, but this is his final test.
Murray offensively versus Avery Bradley defensively is a different matchup than Murray is used to. More often that not, opponents defend Murray with lengthy wings. The Portland Trail Blazers tried Trevor Ariza on him, then the Jazz used Royce O’Neale, then Phoenix split time between a traditional defender in Ricky Rubio and a lengthy wing in Mikal Bridges. While that may still happen with Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bradley will more than likely get the first crack at guarding Jamal. Bradley is smaller but quick, extremely pesky, and loves to live in the jersey of the offensive player he’s defending. Can Murray create space when defended by Bradley? Right now, Murray is on a heater, so I wouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point.