Lakers get playoff rematch against Nuggets in first round

The Lakers were swept in four games in the Conference Finals last year against the Nuggets.

DENVER — The quest for Title #18 starts on Saturday night for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Standing in their way in the first round? The defending champion Denver Nuggets, the team that ousted Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals in last year’s postseason.

At some point, the Lakers were going to face the Nuggets but they probably didn’t think it would be the first round. Nevertheless, the rematch is here and L.A. has to make the best of this situation.

As been mentioned several times, Denver has beaten the Lakers eight straight times, including last season’s playoffs. In the regular season, the Nuggets went 3-0 and those games were under brighter lights.

The first game happened under Opening Night in Denver where the home team thoroughly outplayed the Lakers, 119-107. The second game happened on Feb. 8th, the day Kobe Bryant’s statue was revealed. Nuggets ended the game with a 10-0 run to put the Lakers away, 114-104. And the third contest happened on March 2nd when LeBron James got to 40,000 career points. It seemingly had the same script as Denver went on a late run to take the game away from Los Angeles, 124-114.

The Lakers were right there in their last two match-ups. It’s about preventing Denver from getting away late. Easier said than done, of course, as the Nuggets have had their number the last eight games.

Los Angeles has to solve the puzzle that is Nikola Jokic. Jokic will get his numbers but it’s about the Lakers making it difficult for the two-time MVP. Jamal Murray seemed to toy against the purple and gold; he averaged 32.5 points in that four-game series sweep. Michael Porter, Jr. has become a terrifying third option for them (16.7 PPG while shooting .397 from three). Aaron Gordon is a big body that can make life hard for LeBron James while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the perfect 3-and-D player (.406 from behind the arc) for Denver.

Denver’s bench isn’t as strong as it was last season when Bruce Brown was there but they still have capable players like Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun, and Peyton Watson. Still, the Lakers will have to take advantage when Jokic isn’t on the floor; the Nuggets are +41 in those three games against L.A. when the Joker was on the court.

As for the Lakers, LeBron James said he feels better physically coming into these playoffs.

“Better than I did at the end of the season last year going into the postseason,” said James when asked about his health. “Obviously still dealing with it, whatever the case may be. Some small things here, some small things there. But I took a lot of pride in the offseason in just trying to get my ankle, foot back in order, get my body back in order. It’s definitely paid off for me throughout the regular season.”

So that’s some good news for the Lakers. Anthony Davis also played 76 games this season, his most ever in his career. Having the two stars as healthy as they are is a good sign for the Lakers.

Can the rest get it done? D’Angelo Russell is the elephant in the room; he struggled mightily against Denver in the postseason last year. He averaged 6.3 points in the series, while shooting an atrocious .323 from the field and 2 for 15 (.133) from three. Rui Hachimura took the task of taking on Jokic one-on-one last year; he might be assigned to him again in some points in this series. Austin Reaves was a wonderful third option for them.

It’s too bad L.A. will be without Cam Reddish, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Christian Wood on Saturday. But will someone from the second unit step up for the Lakers? It almost feels like somebody has to given the championship pedigree by the Nuggets.

So it’s the rematch between the Lakers and the Nuggets. Suffice to say that the winner of this series becomes a favorite in the Western Conference. Los Angeles hopes that it’s the good guys that come away with the victory, however of a longshot it is.