History is not on the side of the Denver Nuggets. They have never beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in a playoff series, and three of those losses came in the Western Conference finals — 1985, 2009 and 2020.
The Nuggets have never been to the NBA Finals, either, but they can mark those off the to-do list in the next two weeks with a win over Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals, which start with Game 1 in Denver on Tuesday night.
“For me, getting to the Finals is all that matters,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The fact that it is the Lakers makes it that much more special for a lot of people that support us.”
Only six players remain from the 2020 conference finals — LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the Lakers and Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for Denver. Caldwell-Pope was with Los Angeles that year.
In the previous three conference finals meetings, the Lakers were the higher seed — although 2020 was played in the Orlando bubble — but this year they are the underdogs. Los Angeles remade its roster on the fly, reached the playoff bracket as a seventh seed through the play-in tournament and steamrolled by two higher seeds to reach the conference finals.
The Nuggets are the No. 1 seed, a position they held for most of the season, and have home-court advantage. They were 34-7 at Ball Arena in the regular season and have won all six home playoff games ahead of the matchup with the Lakers.
They will try to ride that home court to the next round, but it won’t be easy. Although the teams split the four games in the regular season, all of those came before Los Angeles made major moves at the trading deadline.
Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba were added, and all have played a role in the turnaround to reach the postseason.
The role players will be a factor but the series comes down to the stars, and the Lakers need to figure out how to minimize Jokic’s impact. The two-time MVP has been nearly unstoppable in 11 playoff games, averaging 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists with five triple-doubles.
Even with Davis matching up with Jokic it will take more than him to stop Denver’s center.
“Try to catch him coming out of his house and kidnap him,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham joked after Monday’s practice.
“A.D. will start on him and other guys will see action against him. Just try to put our best foot forward every time out. We’ll try to do everything we can, do our work early, keep him off balance.”
Both teams are dealing with health issues ahead of Game 1. Murray is listed as questionable with a non-COVID illness, which was also his status before Game 6 at Phoenix on Thursday night. He scored 26 points in 35 minutes in that closeout game.
Bamba was back in Los Angeles on Monday for a follow-up appointment on his left ankle Tuesday. The plan is for him to fly to Denver on Tuesday but he’s listed as doubtful for Game 1.
–Field Level Media