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Lakers vs. Nuggets Game 1 Preview: The magical turnaround continuous

The series boils down to the matchup between the best offensive big man versus the best defensive big man in the league.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers are in the Western Conference Finals.

Let that sink in. After starting the season off with a 2-10 record, the Lakers have come as far as being one of the best four teams remaining in the Playoffs. They just kicked the defending champions Golden State Warriors out of the Playoffs and are now eight wins away from claiming their 18th franchise title. It’s been a magical turnaround, to say the least, and a ride that the Lakers and its fans don’t ever want to end.

But in order to achieve the ultimate goal which is the championship, the challenge gets tougher each round. The Lakers are now stumbling upon the Western Conference’s number-one seed Denver Nuggets, who have been consistently terrific all year. This is going to be the Lakers’ greatest test yet. This series may be considered a rematch from two years ago but both teams are significantly different this time around.

This current Nuggets team is notably better than two years ago. Nikola Jokic has won two MVP awards since and has been playing like a top-five player for two straight years now. They’re hungrier, more experienced and have a better supporting cast. They have the league’s best offense and net rating. They’re well-coached and are collectively mentally tough. Not to mention that the Nuggets have arguably the best home-court advantage in the league.

For the Lakers to win this series, they need to once again follow the blueprint they’ve set out for the past two. Basically, win at least one on the road and every game at home, where they remain undefeated since March. Like the Grizzlies and Warriors series, Game 1 against the Nuggets should be more than just a feel-out game for the purple and gold. It’s an opportunity to strike first and set the tone for the series.

That said, here are three factors to think about heading into the series, before Game 1 commences:

The league’s best offensive big against the best defensive big

The focal point of this series is the big-man battle between Jokic and Anthony Davis. The best offensive big man in the league against the league’s best defender. The Joker has been the most efficient player in the Playoffs thus far, averaging 30.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists. However, the two-time MVP has yet to face a generational defender like Davis, who will be his toughest opponent so far.

It’s fair to say that this series will boil down to who between Davis and Jokic can impact the game better in their own ways. It’s unfortunate for the Lakers that they no longer employ a backup big like Dwight Howard who physically banged with and went toe-to-toe with Jokic in the Bubble. The best outcome the Lakers can hope for this time around is to try to contain Jokic’s impact — whether that's from the post, perimeter, or in the paint. That’ll be decided by the team’s overall defense, anchored by Davis.

The Lakers need to win with their defense

If there’s one advantage Los Angeles has over Denver, it’s their league-best defense. The same defense that has gotten them this far in the Playoffs. I talked about the importance of containing Jokic in the graph above, but what’s arguably more vital is making sure that Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Cardwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have a tough time offensively as well. That will depend on who Darvin Ham decides to start with and the coverages he utilizes.

Will Ham decide to go with Jared Vanderbilt for the sake of his length and speed despite his offensive flaws? Or will the rookie head coach keep Dennis Schroder in the lineup — a specific adjustment he made in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors — to battle with the Nuggets’ backcourt? More importantly, will the Lakers decide to go big or small? We’ll get a preview of that in Game 1.

Who is going to be the X-factor in this series?

The beauty of this Lakers team is that there was always that one role player who served as an x-factor in every game they’ve won so far in the Playoffs. And in this series, the Lakers will need at least one or two of them to show up every game. Davis will be occupied with Jokic, while LeBron James will pace himself as the series go on. At least one of Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Hachimura, Lonnie Walker IV, and Schroder have to outplay the Nuggets’ role players four times in this series.

The most intriguing aspect of this series is that both teams match up well with each other and employ two of the best bigs in the league. Both teams are also very well-coached, so expect this to be an elite chess match of a series once again. Let’s see if the Lakers can draw first blood and set the tone of the series in Denver, where they will play in their 24th Conference Finals appearance.

Notes and updates

  • Before we get to the injury report, here’s a fun fact: The Lakers have faced the Nuggets three times in the Western Conference Finals in the past, specifically in 2020, 2009 and 1985. The Lakers have dominated Denver throughout their Playoff battles.
  • For the Lakers injury report, the team listed Anthony Davis (right foot stress injury), LeBron James (right foot soreness) as probable.
  • Meanwhile, Mo Bamba (left ankle soreness) is listed as out.
  • As for the Nuggets, Jamal Murray (non-COVID illness) is listed as questionable but it seems he’s expected to suit up.
  • For news around the league, the NBA draft lottery will take place on Tuesday, May 16. If you want to interest yourself in that, check out our complete news and coverage for the NBA Draft here.

The Lakers and Nuggets will tip off at 5:30 p.m. PT. on Tuesday. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.

You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.

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