The Los Angeles Lakers' uphill battle against defending champion Denver

ByDave McMenamin and Kevin Pelton ESPN logo
Thursday, April 18, 2024

LeBron James' proclamation as he got up from his cubby in the cramped visitor's locker room inside Smoothie King Center and turned the corner towards the showers sounded more exasperated than excited.

"I'm tired as f---!", he said. "Oh my God!"

Beating the New Orleans Pelicans in Tuesday's play-in tournament game earned the 39-year-old James and the Los Angeles Lakers four days to rest and prepare for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ABC).

L.A. will need plenty of rest -- and maybe some luck -- to get past the defending champs. Denver has dominated this matchup dating back to last year's Western Conference finals.

James averaged 39.5 minutes and was the primary defender on Zion Williamson in the Lakers' two wins in New Orleans to close out the regular season and earn the No. 7 seed.

"Ain't no more pace," James said. "Pace yourself for what? It's now a sprint. It's a sprint now. We already went through the marathon.

"I'll do whatever it takes. I mean, all the percentages and all that s---, it's out the window. The season's over. So it's about just winning. Win the game."

It's been nearly 500 days since the Lakers have beaten the Nuggets. The West's No. 2 seed enter Saturday's game on an eight-game winning streak against L.A., including last season's sweep in the Western Conference finals.

For the Lakers, none of those losses have any bearing. Coach Darvin Ham told his players as much after Tuesday's win.

"It's back to 0-0," Ham said. "Obviously they've had a ton of success against our ball club but there's always a new day."

As much as optimism is warranted -- overall, the Lakers have won 12 of their past 15 games -- two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets command heightened awareness.

"Have to play mistake-free basketball," James said of the series. "Make it tough on them. They're going to try to make it tough on us, obviously."

Why Denver is still a massive problem for L.A.

The Lakers' frontcourt of Anthony Davis, Rui Hachimura and LeBron James -- with Hachimura the smallest of the group at 6-8, 230 pounds -- is a massive advantage against most teams. That's not the case against the Nuggets, who also boast three frontcourt starters 6-8 or taller.

Although Michael Porter Jr. isn't quite as big as the Lakers' starters at 6-10, 218, Denver's combo of Porter, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic still runs a combined 737 pounds, making them one of the league's biggest frontcourts. And, generally speaking, the bigger opponent, the worse the Lakers have fared this season.

In 17 games against teams with a combined weight of at least 730 pounds in their primary frontcourt, the Lakers went 7-10 (.412) with a minus-2.2 differential. By contrast, the Lakers dominated the league's smallest teams, going 16-6 (.727) with a plus-3.9 differential against teams with a combined primary frontcourt weight of 670 pounds or less.

Specifically, Denver's size and skill seems to negate the Lakers' ability to defend the paint. The Nuggets put up a blistering 122.0 offensive rating in last year's conference finals, their best of any series en route to the title, and their 125 points per 100 possessions in this year's 3-0 regular-season sweep was Denver's third-best offensive rating against any opponent according to NBA Advanced Stats.

The Nuggets' 59% shooting on 2-point attempts against the Lakers this season was far better than either their overall 56% mark or the 54% the Lakers allowed. It hasn't hurt that Denver has also scorched the nets beyond the arc against the Lakers, shooting 40% on 3s in last year's playoffs and 42% head-to-head this season, their second-best mark against any Western Conference opponent.

Despite that hot shooting, Lakers-Nuggets matchups have typically been close. Two of this year's three games and three of last season's four playoff matchups have gone into clutch time -- the score within five points inside the last five minutes or overtime. During those situations, Denver outscored the Lakers 28-13 in the 2023 conference finals and 27-10 in the 2023-24 regular season.

If the Lakers are going to flip the script in this year's rematch, it's going to start with finding more success in crunch time.

Why L.A. could challenge the champs

As the Lakers battled back from a 10-point deficit in the second quarter to take the lead at halftime on Tuesday, Gabe Vincent was in the middle of the momentum swing.

Vincent recorded two 3s and a steal, all while chasing around Pelicans sharpshooter CJ McCollum on the perimeter. The Lakers outscored the Pelicans by 13 in the eight minutes Vincent played in the quarter. And, after the game, multiple members of the Lakers front office raved to ESPN about the backup guard's impact.

Los Angeles used nearly all of its mid-level exception to sign Vincent in the offseason, coming off an NBA Finals run with the Miami Heat. A knee injury cost Vincent all but 11 games of the regular season, but he's returned to the lineup in late March as one of the Lakers' best on-ball defenders -- especially with Jarred Vanderbilt out.

Vincent's skillset is particularly helpful against Denver guard Jamal Murray, who averaged 32.5 points on 53/41/95 splits in last year's conference finals against the Lakers, but just 21.4 points on 45/39/93 splits in the Finals against Vincent and the Heat.

Murray averaged 30.9 points per 100 possessions in the Finals with Vincent as the primary defender, compared to 36.9 against former Lakers guard Dennis Schroder in the conference finals, per Second Spectrum.

Another key personnel change for both sides is the departure of forward Bruce Brown, who left Denver in free agency last summer.

Brown was a two-way force against L.A. last season, averaging 12.4 points on 52.8% shooting while locking up D'Angelo Russell so well on defense that the Lakers guard fell out of the rotation during the series.

Russell hit five 3s in Tuesday's win, including the clincher in the final minute to secure the No. 7 seed.

James, meanwhile, is coming off his most regular season games as a Lakerdespite being in his 21st season and has said his health is much improved over last year's sweep.

"I took a lot of pride in the offseason," James said, "just trying to get my ankle, get my foot right back in order, get my body back in order."

Now, the Lakers' next challenge in one of James' final championship runs is taking down the champs -- who they haven't beaten in a playoff game since the Orlando bubble.

As Ham told his team on Tuesday night: "We want all the smoke and we ain't ducking no fades."

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