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Lakers vs. Nuggets Preview: Small or big ball?

The Lakers have primarily played small ball lately, with LeBron James playing a majority of his minutes at center. However, they have also played Dwight Howard sparingly for a more traditional look, a look that could maybe come in handy against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Lakers vs. Nuggets. Saturday will be a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals, a star-studded clash of two of the best teams in the league.

Well, not exactly. Actually, not even close.

A lot has changed since that playoff series, more so for the Lakers than the Nuggets, as the former are now equipped with the currently slumping Russell Westbrook. Things do still look different on the Nuggets’ side of things, however, primarily due to injuries that have kept Jamal Murray out all season and Michael Porter Jr. out for the majority of it.

The Lakers also have an injured star out, as Anthony Davis continues to heal from the MCL sprain he suffered in December. There’s reported optimism he comes back before the end of January, but he won’t be back for this one.

All of the above has led to the sixth-seeded Lakers coming into this one 21-21, while the fifth-seeded Nuggets are 21-19.

Here’s our preview of the first matchup between the two teams this season, as they both continue to try and claw their way out of the middle of the pack.

Small, big, or mixed ball?

Since shortly after Davis went down, LeBron James has been the Lakers’ primary center. Stanley Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, and Trevor Ariza have also occupied the center position here and there, but gone are the days where the Lakers always had a traditional center (AD included) on the floor. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played meaningful minutes since Dec. 23, while Dwight Howard has only played in non-garbage time minutes for four of the 12 games that Davis has missed since his MCL sprain.

It’s been one of the main reasons for the team having a 114.4 offensive rating in the past 12 games, compared to a 106.3 rating up until the game that Davis was injured in.

But even though the drastic shift to small ball has supercharged the offense with 3-4 shooters around LeBron, it’s had an opposite effect on the team’s defense. Despite the jump in offensive rating over those 12 games, the team still has a negative net rating because of their 115.5 defensive rating (a number that was 107.1 before Davis went down).

Those small-ball deficiencies were on full display Wednesday, as the Lakers’ weak point-of-attack defense caused them to give up 70 points in the paint to the Kings, the most they had given up in any game this season. This has been a trend this week, as they gave up 62 points in the paint to the Grizzlies on Sunday, their third-highest mark of the year.

Funny enough, Wednesday’s game did feature a mixture of small and big ball for the Lakers as Dwight Howard played 15 minutes, with LeBron alongside him for some of that time. Howard was needed to cover the likes of Chimezie Metu and Alex Len, and while he was out there the Lakers were able to limit the Kings’ offense. While Howard was on the court, the Lakers had a 93.8 defensive rating, with the next closest DRTG in the game belonging to Austin Reaves at 113.3.

Those numbers, when paired with such a disappointing loss, would cause one to reasonably expect a decent dose of Howard against reigning MVP Nikola Jokic on Saturday. In fact, it was Howard who prided himself on being an effective nuisance to Jokic in the 2020 Western Conference Finals.

However, he will be coming into this game questionable with left knee soreness, and Vogel was unwilling to commit to using him.

“We’ll see,” Vogel said when asked if this was a game where he was tempted to go big more often due to Jokic’s presence. “We see a lot of value in trying to stretch him (Jokic) out, trying to make him guard on the perimeter as much as possible and use the space that we’ve been using offensively, but I’m not going to release what the lineup will be.”

So even if Howard is active, who knows if the Lakers would actually deploy him. Because although Jokic is 6’11 and can do damage in the low post, he mostly helps his team by being a facilitator near the top of the key, letting his otherworldly vision and passing do all the hard work for him. Vogel may be ignoring Jokic’s size because of his passing abilities, possibly tipping his hand that he may be taking a small-ball approach to the Nuggets even if Howard is active.

Saturday’s game has basically already begun as the Lakers’ coaching staff tries to figure out which end of the playing style spectrum they want to lean towards. Most teams — some with traditional big men, and some without any — give them an easy decision on which way to go. Teams like the Nuggets are harder to figure out, which is fitting since their best player is one of the more unique stars in the history of the game.

We’ll see on Saturday if the Lakers ultimately lean towards small ball, big ball, or a mixture of both, as well as whether or not they can mask the weaknesses they have in each style to get a much-needed win against a team in front of them in the standings.

Notes and Updates:

  • Kendrick Nunn remains out, although his pregame individual workouts show he may be close to returning. As noted previously, Davis will not play in this game, but a return before the end of the month could happen.
  • Carmelo Anthony missed Wednesday’s game against the Kings with lower back tightness, coming into Saturday’s game as questionable with the same tightness. As noted above, Howard will be questionable with the knee soreness.
  • Will Barton will be probable for the Nuggets on Saturday after having an extremely scary collision with Jusuf Nurkic on Thursday where Barton actually passed out.
  • No one else on the report for Denver, other than Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., P.J. Dozier, and Vlatko Cancar, who are all recovering from their own surgeries and long-term injuries.
  • Around the league, the NBA again eased their COVID-19 regulations for players that are vaccinated as well as boosted. You can see them below, with boosted players receiving some impactful benefits in terms of how much they are tested.

The Lakers and Nuggets tip-off at 6 p.m. PT, with the game being nationally televised on NBA TV as well as locally through Spectrum SportsNet.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.