After Game #82 of the regular season was finished, this was what I said about the Los Angeles Lakers.
Let’s see if this is a real quest to a championship.
Well, we jump ahead 37 days and the Los Angeles Lakers are back in the Western Conference Finals. It’s safe to say that this is, in fact, a real quest to a championship.
It was easy to doubt the Lakers. They were still smarting over last season’s 33-49 record at the beginning of the new campaign. While LeBron James yearned for some “lasers”, the Lakers struggled out of the gate at 2-10. With a team that had LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook, it was embarrassing.
The Lakers struggled all year, really, but they persevered. They endured injuries to their two stars, Davis and LeBron. They lost two critical games at the buzzer (Pacers and Mavericks). But then they also came back from big deficits against Portland and Dallas (the same game LeBron got hurt).
(Denver also made a move in the trading deadline, acquiring Thomas Bryant from the Lakers after Bryant reportedly grew unhappy when Davis returned from injury. Bryant has not played a single minute in the playoffs.)
They were finally able to reach .500 with 8 games left in the season. And after being 13th for most of the regular campaign, they got hot late and managed to get to the 7th seed. And you guys know what happened from there. The Lakers came back from 15 down to beat Minnesota in the play-in. They defeat the banged-up Memphis Grizzlies in 6 games. And then the Lakers unseated the Warriors from their throne in 6 games to reach the conference finals.
That’s kind of incredible for a team that started out 2-10 and finished 43-39 in the regular season.
And with that, we get a bubble reunion between the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets. In fact, it’s the same conference finalists on both sides (Heat/Celtics meet in the East).
This isn’t 2020, though (and honestly, who wants to relive that dreadful year?). The top players may be the same but both rosters have changed significantly.
Heck, it doesn’t really do any good to look back at the regular season match-ups because they were all played before the trading deadline. But let’s recap their season series, anyway.
Denver won the first in Oct. 26. Lakers won in Oct. 30 to get their first win of the season. Their third match-up in Dec. 16 was won by the Lakers (though Davis got hurt in this game). And in Jan. 9, Denver won and snapped the Lakers’ 5-game win streak. So Lakers were 2-2 against Denver this season.
But none of those games included their midseason acquisitions of Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell, and Malik Beasley. By the way, Vanderbilt and Beasley are former Nuggets that were traded before the Bubble games in 2020.
The ones that are left from the bubble? LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and little-used Vlatko Čančar. Of course, KCP won a ring with L.A. in 2020 but is now on Denver’s side. Only LeBron and Davis remain from that Lakers championship team.
So everything is different now. Nikola Jokic has won two MVPs since and some regard him as the best player in the league today. Jamal Murray has recovered from his ACL injury while Michael Porter Jr. is a much more reliable third option now.
On the Lakers’ side, LeBron is 38 and while still an excellent player, has certainly started to show his age. Anthony Davis, who has been healthy in the playoffs, has been a spectacular defender and certainly capable of an offensive explosion. As for the one that switched sides (not his fault; the Lakers dealt him as part of a package for Westbrook), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot a career-best .423 from three in the regular season and has been a great help in defending the perimeter for Denver.
The match-up that everyone is looking at is Davis trying to stop Jokic. Jokic can beat a team in a thousand ways but what he really really excels at is getting the entire team involved. He doesn’t have to score in bunches for Denver to win. So maybe the key here is making him a scorer and shutting down everyone. Maybe Davis doesn’t have to singularly get Jokic (maybe guys like Vanderbilt, Hachimura will take on this task, too) and have him play free safety inside the paint.
And it’s the same deal with the Lakers. Davis and James are going to need help offensively. Rui, Austin Reaves, D’Angelo, and Lonnie Walker IV have had big games for them in the playoffs. Davis has been weirdly inconsistent offensively these playoffs. LeBron has settled a lot in this postseason but has come up big when needed (Aaron Gordon could make LeBron’s life a little tough). So they’ll have to ask their supporting cast to step up once again. Can they do it on the biggest stage yet?
So yes, it’s a bubble rematch but these are two different teams. Can the Lakers stop Denver’s well-oiled machine of an offense? Or can the Nuggets overwhelm and break down L.A.’s tight defense?
This is going to be a hell of a ride, guys.