Nikola Jokic, Nuggets face Lakers as quest for repeat begins

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‘We have to play flawless basketball,’ says LeBron James as the Lakers face presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic and defending champion Nuggets in the first round of the West playoffs

In 1985, the only thing standing between Denver and the NBA Finals were the Los Angeles Lakers. Same in 2009 and 2020, and each time Los Angeles ended the Nuggets’ season.

Last year, Denver broke through against the Lakers in the Western Conference finals en route to the first NBA championship in franchise history.

The Lakers will get an early chance at redemption when the teams meet in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

The Nuggets, the No. 2 seed, will host Game 1 against seventh-seeded Los Angeles on Saturday evening, April 20 (Sunday, April 21, Manila time).

Game 2 is Monday night in Denver.

The Nuggets have won eight straight against the Lakers, including sweeping the Western Conference finals, and they won the three meetings this year by an average of 10 points.

Denver is a heavy favorite to knock off LeBron James and Anthony Davis again, but the Nuggets players are expecting a tough series.

“I think every game in the playoffs last year was really tough,” said Nikola Jokic, the presumptive MVP. “It could have gone either way… Yes, we beat them 4-0, but they are a really talented team. They are really well built.”

The four games in last year’s playoffs were close, with only one, Denver’s 119-108 win in Game 3, coming by a double-digit margin, and the circumstances are different this year.

Since they meet in the first round, Los Angeles is much calmer. In 2023, the Lakers had survived two six-game series and a play-in game before facing a Nuggets team that had won their first two rounds quite easily.

The other factor is the change in schedules. Denver’s bench last season featured veterans Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, but this year’s reserves are younger, less consistent but more athletic.

Head coach Michael Malone went through growing pains with Peyton Watson and Christian Braun as the two became more reliable.

The Lakers added Gabe Vincent in the offseason, but a knee injury limited Vincent to 11 games during the regular season. He returned to the lineup in late March and added perimeter defense and three-point shooting to the mix.

Vincent did well guarding Nuggets guard Jamal Murray in the NBA Finals last year and figures to give the assignment to Murray a few times during the series.

The biggest advantage Denver has is Jokic, a 7-footer who shoots at a high percentage, rebounds well and finds open teammates better than any big man in the game.

Jokic finished the regular season 10th in scoring (26.4 points), fourth in rebounding (12.4) and fourth in assists (9.0).

Davis, who will try to stop Jokic, had little success against him in the playoffs last year. Jokic averaged 27.8 points on 50.6% shooting and 14.5 rebounds. and 11.8 assists in conquering Los Angeles.

James, even at age 39, is capable of taking over games, but knows his team has a small margin for error against the Nuggets.

“You have to play flawless basketball,” James said of the series. ‘Make it difficult for them. They will try to make things difficult for us.” –