Rivalries in the modern NBA are hard to come by. For one, they almost always revolve around playoff basketball when tensions, and frustrations, are built to a rapid crescendo after multiple games against the same team. The Los Angeles Lakers are no strangers to these types of rivalries, as they have been arguably a part of nearly every iconic one in league history.
Unfortunately, the team has not been able to sniff the playoffs closely enough to build on or create new feuds. There have been the occasional regular season beefs with the likes of Devin Booker, and the Phoenix Suns, but none that have really carried water over a significant length of time.
Coming into the season, many expected the Sacramento Kings and the Lakers would go on to reignite their classic rivalry when both teams selected point guards in the recent draft, of whom had their share of history against one and other. The matchups between the two ultimately fell flat and were nowhere near the expected duel fans had envisioned, but alas, a new challenger has appeared in the former of a 21-year old Canadian.
Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has taken a liking to ruffling the feathers of Lakers’ Nation this season. It began in what was a simple running down of the clock where the Nuggets were about to hold on and beat the Lakers, until Murray deliberately dribbled around an unaware Lonzo Ball, resulting in the following shenanigans:
The reactions of the Lakers’ players after the incident suggested the next matchup would be a little more physical, yet the game came and went and the Nuggets once again won, and Murray once again found his way underneath the team’s skin during the closing moments of the game.
It is still unknown what was said, or not said, but the quote that was uttered came from the player who was at the center of the initial hoopla—Lonzo Ball. Ball, who has up to this point mastered every “Good Teammate” line in NBA 2K’s MyCareer when adressing the media, was surprisingly candid about Murray, and his “punk move.”
Which brings us to Tuesday night, when the Los Angeles Lakers will host the Denver Nuggets, and the aforementioned Jamal Murray, for the final time this season.
The game in the grand scope of things is vastly more important for the Nuggets, not solely because of the recent events, but because they are currently ankle deep in the trenches of the Western Conference playoff hunt. As of this article, the team is percentage points away from being slotted anywhere from the 7-9th seed of the playoffs, and a game against a below 500. opponent needs to be a win.
For the Lakers, they will have not only have the chance to redeem themselves against a recent thorn in their side, but also a chance to play spoiler, like they were against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in their last game. The role is one they can possibly have for the majority of their remaining schedule and present themselves with a good test to gauge their development against playoff contending competition.
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In order to get better insight on the recent performance of the Denver Nuggets, I was fortunate enough to get Denver Stiffs’ own Evan Fiala to share some knowledge on the Lakers’ upcoming opponent:
“One of the big stories for the Nuggets this season has been the integration of Paul Millsap alongside Nikola Jokic. Of course, that was complicated when Millsap got injured in November and missed 44 games, but since his return it has been an adjustment for Jokic to play with the four-time All-Star.
At first, Jokic’s production really suffered and he had his worst individual stretch of the season, but starting last Friday against the Lakers he appears to be back to his usual self by controlling the offensive flow of the game. On Sunday he even posted his seventh triple-double of the year. However, this game (and the rest of the Nuggets season, really) still hinges on Jokic’s and Millsap’s ability to coexist.
The other Nugget to watch after the Luke Walton/Lonzo Ball drama from Friday night is Jamal Murray. For whatever reason, he has put the pressure on himself to perform big against Lonzo and the Lakers and tonight he will get his chance to ride or die after all the “disrespect” he’s shown. Undoubtedly it will be a hostile environment for him, but expect him to be ready to put his money where his mouth is.”
Evan detailed what has been an underlying question all season with Denver, and that is how Paul Milsap and Nikola Jokic would coexist once Milsap returned from injury, specifically for a team who played well in his absence.
In theory, Milsap seems like an ideal fit along Jokic as his versatile defensive acumen allows him to cover more ground and his floor-spacing ability makes for a lethal inside/out pairing, and so far the data has backed that up.
According to cleaningtheglass.com, in the 978 possessions Denver has had the combination of Jokic and Milsap on the floor, the team posts a 115 offensive rating, a 102.5 defensive rating, and is a +12.5 (which ranks in the 97th percentile in efficiency differential).
As potent as the Denver duo has been, the Lakers’ front-court pairing of Brook Lopez and Julius Randle have been as hot as any pair in the league in the last 5 games. Lopez, who has struggled to find a consistent rhythm all season, has suddenly caught fire averaging 21.2 points a game on 58 percent shooting in his last five contests, as the team has seemingly made a deliberate effort to feed their big man.
His partner in the paint in Randle has been just as good, if not better, averaging nearly 22.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, on identical 58 percent shooting and is coming off arguably the best game of his career.
As much as the Murray/Ball matchup will garner the headlines going into the game as Evan noted, the front-court battle arguably will decide it. The duos of Jokic and Milsap, and Lopez and Randle, should make for a heavyweight fight, even if their smaller counterparts do not.
Time: 7:30 p.m. PT
TV: Spectrum SportsNet/NBA TV
A special thanks once again to Denver Stiffs’ Evan Fiala who was generous enough to share his thoughts on the Denver Nuggets and the game. Give him a follow over on Twitter (@eefiala) despite his connection to one, Jamal Murray.