The Los Angeles Lakers defied the odds and reached the Western Conference Finals despite starting the playoffs with the NBA Play-In Tournament. But that’s how the playoffs work: Hot teams, regardless of seed, advance.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers are consolidating at the right time, but they will certainly be tested Tuesday night in Denver against the top-seeded Nuggets. And that means having to deal with MVP runner-up Nikola Jokic.
Jokic was seeking his third straight MVP this season after winning it in 2021 and 2022, and he’s been showing why he’s on top of the game in both series the Nuggets have played thus far. It’s a problem with the ball in his hands, so much so that Lakers head coach Darvin Ham had a hilarious response to a question about trying to stop Jokic.
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“Catch him leaving his house and kidnap him,” Ham quipped.
Jokic has truly been the Nuggets’ MVP in these playoffs, having scored at least 30 points in all but one against the Phoenix Suns in the second round. Games 5 and 6 also saw back-to-back triple-doubles for Jokic, including 32 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the deciding Game 6.
The Nuggets are the favorites to reach the NBA Finals in part because of how deadly Jokic is on both ends of the court. Combined with Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and more, Denver has the team that can win it all.
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But the Lakers are a very different team than these two teams that last met. It was Jan. 7 when the Nuggets and Lakers shared a court for the last time, and the Lakers look and play very different. They were not D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura or Malik Beasley. It was Patrick Beverly and Russell Westbrook who Los Angeles finally walked away from.
Given these new additions and how the Lakers have been playing recently, Jokic knows this is going to be a very close series.
“We don’t play with this type of Lakers [team]” he said, via ESPN. “So this will basically be a new team for us. Probably everything is new, everything is different.
“They’re playing amazing in these playoffs.”
The battle between Jokic and Davis will play a big role throughout the series, as the latter has been very efficient with his shooting lately and defending the rim. Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said he is “a guard with a 7-foot-2 frame,” characteristics that somewhat match his teammate in Jokic. While Davis is a bit more cunning with his dribbling, Jokic’s field vision and his ability to hit every shot when he crosses the middle of the pitch make him just as difficult to defend.
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These two teams met in the Western Conference Finals in 2020 in the bubble, but these times are different. Fans will be screaming in Denver and Los Angeles in packed arenas waiting to see which team will compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
If the Lakers want that to happen, they will have to stop Jokic. The Nuggets will give their MVP ample opportunities to see if his opponent can do it.
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Game 1 begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday night.