The Los Angeles Lakers defied odds and have reached the Western Conference Finals despite starting the playoffs with the NBA Play-In Tournament. But that’s the way playoffs work: The hot teams, no matter the seeds, advance.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest of the Lakers are gelling at the right time, but they will certainly be tested on Tuesday night in Denver against the top-seeded Nuggets. And that means having to deal with the MVP runner-up Nikola Jokic.
Jokic was going for his third MVP in a row this season after winning it in 2021 and 2022, and he’s been showcasing why he’s at the top of the game in the two series the Nuggets have played thus far. He’s a problem with the ball in his hands, so much so that Lakers head coach Darvin Ham had a hilarious answer to a question about trying to stop Jokic.
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“Catch him coming out of his house and kidnap him,” Ham said jokingly.
Jokic has truly been the Nuggets’ MVP in these playoffs, as he’s scored at least 30 points in all but one game 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 decisive Game 6.
The Nuggets are the favorites to reach the NBA Finals in part because of how lethal Jokic is on both ends of the court. Combined with Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and more, Denver has the team capable of winning it all.
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But the Lakers are a much different team than these two teams last met. It was Jan. 7 that the Nuggets and Lakers last shared a court, and the Lakers look and play vastly different. There was no D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura or Malik Beasley. It was Patrick Beverly and Russell Westbrook, who Los Angeles eventually moved away from.
Because of these new additions, and how the Lakers have been playing recently, Jokic knows this is going to be a hard-fought series.
“We didn’t play with this kind of Lakers [team],” he said, via ESPN. “So this is going to be basically 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 have a big spotlight on it throughout the series, as the latter has been very efficient with his shots of late as well as defending the rim. Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said he is “a guard with a 7-foot-2 body” – characteristics that somewhat match his teammate in Jokic. While Davis is a bit more crafty with his dribble, Jokic’s court vision and ability to hit all shots when he crosses halfcourt makes him just as hard 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 awaiting to see which team will compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
If the Lakers want that to happen, they’ll have to stop Jokic. The Nuggets will be giving their MVP ample opportunity to see if their opponent can do so.
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Game 1 tips off at 8:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday night.