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Five Key Questions in the Denver Nuggets Vs. Los Angeles Lakers Playoff Rematch

In a reunion of last year’s Western Conference Finals teams, Nikola Jokic’s second-seeded Denver Nuggets will face LeBron James’ seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs, as Denver begins the quest to defend their 2023 status. championship, the franchise’s first ever.

Denver drew the Lakers after Los Angeles, who initially finished eighth in the West, defeated the seventh-place New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in tournament to secure the seventh playoff seed. This will be the third time in five years that the two teams have met in the postseason, and while part of that fact makes them very familiar with each other, some significant differences make it, as Nuggets head coach Michael Malone put it. after a recent practice, “another series.”

“Guys are coming off a 57-win season and we understand what we have in front of us,” Malone said. “And I think the biggest challenge is everyone keeps talking about how we beat them eight games in a row, and as I told our guys today, that doesn’t mean anything.”

“This is a different team, a different series, and it will be a great challenge to beat the Lakers again in the playoffs,” Malone added.

The eight straight Nuggets wins over the Lakers that Michael Malone referenced date back more than 15 months ago to Jan. 9, 2023, when Denver defeated LA in their final regular-season game last year, and include the Nuggets’ four conference victories. finals and a three-win sweep in this season’s series. Additionally, the Lakers haven’t beaten Denver on their home court at Ball Arena in more than two years.

But even though this recent dominance seems to indicate that the Nuggets have LA’s number, the current incarnation of the Lakers may be their strongest entry into the playoffs since the 2020 bubble. Since the All-Star break of As of mid-February, the Lakers have had the league’s 12th-best net rating at plus-3.6 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, including the fourth-best offense at 119.7. And with one of the greatest players of all time in LeBron James, along with Anthony Davis, another multiple All-NBA player, they are not a team to take lightly.

While the betting odds are heavily in favor of the Nuggets (-350) over the Lakers (+275), the challenge presented by Malone is very real, and beating Denver is far from a foregone conclusion. So what will be the keys for the Nuggets to once again defeat their most prominent foe in the postseason? Here we look at five questions about the series, the answers to which could tip the scales.

Can the Lakers slow down the “dynamic duo” of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and their deadly two-man game?

Perhaps the most definitive area of ​​dominance over the Lakers that the Nuggets have established in their recent games is LA’s apparent inability to both mitigate Denver’s offensive power when they have both Jokic and Murray on the floor and to find ways find ways to score on the other side. .

According to data from PBP Stats, Denver has absolutely obliterated the Lakers in the minutes they have played against them, with Murray and Jokic sharing the floor over the past eight games, with an average net rating of plus-14.3 points per 100 possessions ( For comparison (the Boston Celtics’ plus-11.3 was the league’s highest net rating this regular season).

The Lakers essentially threw their entire kitchen sink at Jokic specifically, starting in last year’s playoffs with Davis guarding him, then quickly pivoted to the “Rui Hachimura adjustment” that proved to be less effective than hoped, and ended up throwing everything they could at the wall, including James (who guarded Jokic arguably better than any of his other teammates), but to no avail.

If LA can’t find a way to at least limit the damage Murray and Jokic do, none of the other swing factors will matter much, and Denver could break out the brooms.

Will LeBron James (and Anthony Davis) continue to turn back the clock?

LeBron James has played a total of 56,597 career minutes among active players, more than 10,000 more than second-place Chris Paul. And while he practically seems more Terminator than human at this point, the grind and fatigue that comes with playing deeper into the playoffs at a much more intense level raises the question of whether he can avoid a dip in performance.

Anthony Davis, for his part, ranks 31st in career minutes among active players with 25,409 minutes, but the bigger concern than his mileage is the wear and tear he has endured from a series of injuries during his time in the NBA.

This creates a potentially worrying situation for the Lakers, who almost certainly can’t survive this series without both of their top stars playing at or near their ceiling, but if they can keep going and stay healthy, they’ll have a much better chance. to make it a competitive match.

Can Christian Braun, Reggie Jackson and Peyton Watson effectively replace the production and impact of Denver’s departed free agents Bruce Brown and Jeff Green?

Coming off the bench last season, Bruce Brown was one of the best free agency signings in the league when the Nuggets signed him last offseason, and he was an absolutely crucial contributor to their title success. While veteran journeyman Jeff Green had his ups and downs throughout the regular season, he also proved to be an invaluable part of Denver’s rotation.

Now-sophomore Christian Braun also impressed as a rookie, especially in the Nuggets’ Finals series, but generally played a more limited role than Denver needs from him this year. Additionally, Jackson has replaced Brown as the backup point guard, and Peyton Watson is essentially playing in the vacuum of minutes left by Green’s departure.

The downside to the deadly Jokic-Murray combination mentioned above is that the Nuggets have to survive the minutes when Jokic is off the court. Jackson was a key producer for Denver this season, especially when Jamal Murray missed 23 games, but was inconsistent. And Braun and Watson are still very young and largely unproven, and the Nuggets are making a huge bet on them to perform in crucial, high-leverage playoff games.

If these bench players can generally be on the positive, or at least neutral, side of the ledger instead of being a liability, it will give Denver a huge boost toward winning the series.

How well will the “other” starters on both teams support the efforts of their respective star duos?

For Denver, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are the three supporting starters playing alongside their star duo of Jokic and Murray. For the Lakers, that’s Hachimura, Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell. Both teams need consistency and efficiency, as well as effective defense, from these secondary cast members.

Porter and Russell are the third-leading scorers for their respective teams, and both teams could be in trouble if they don’t get enough production from them. And players like Gordon, Caldwell-Pope and Hachimura will be nothing short of crucial in defense, not only in carrying out their own assignments, but also in the domino effect that boosts the attacking play of their star teammates through the potentially negatively impacting grind of doing the same.

If either team’s key players make a big move or fail to do so, it has a very realistic potential to swing the entire series.

Which team will win the most “battles of the margins” in areas like paint scoring, rebounding, turnovers and free throws?

In the Denver-Los Angeles game in last year’s playoffs, it was a mixed bag in terms of which team had which advantages in areas such as turnovers, points off turnovers, rebounds, paint points and free throw attempts, and if that happens again – or if one team alternately wins the majority of these battles within battles, it could reach a tipping point that affects the series.

As the chart above shows, Denver had a significant advantage over the Lakers in rebounding in last year’s playoffs, including offensive rebound percentage, points fewer turnovers (despite a minimal turnover percentage difference), and fast break points.

LA, on the other hand, beat the Nuggets quite handily in straight free throws and free throws (something the Lakers have become infamous for), as well as points in the paint and bench points.

These respective advantages for both teams probably more or less evened out in that WCF series, with Denver’s more efficient shooting (they had an effective field goal percentage of 57.5% versus the Lakers’ 53.1%) playing a big role in tipping the balance. But the margins can be slim in the playoffs, and any team that checks more of these boxes would significantly increase their chances of surviving the first round.