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There are plenty of ‘ifs’ that matter in Lakers-Nuggets playoff series

Lakers forward LeBron James drives against Nuggets guard Jamal Murray.
Lakers forward LeBron James and Nuggets guard Jamal Murray will be two of the key players in a first-round playoff series that opens Saturday in Denver.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
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History says the Lakers are in trouble.

Asked about the matchup involving the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets, one Eastern Conference executive quickly responded, the three dots on the phone barely registering.

“Bad for the Lakers!” he replied.

Eight consecutive losses to a team probably makes that punctuation appropriate if not a bit of an undersell. Denver is, of course, the higher-seeded team. Denver has, of course, mile-high home-court advantage. Denver has, of course, Nikola Jokic and his unofficial crown as the best player in the league.

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And Denver, is, of course, the NBA’s reigning champion, having swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last spring.

So how do the Lakers pull this off, a series win that would undoubtedly be an upset?

The Nuggets have beaten the Lakers eight consecutive times, but LeBron James and Darvin Ham know what they must do to defeat Denver in the playoffs.

April 18, 2024

It all comes down to a single word, just two letters, and a bunch of stuff going right.

If LeBron James is healthy, he’s a difference-maker …

It probably has not been discussed enough when looking at last season, that James played through the postseason with a serious foot injury, a torn ligament, that he suffered after the All-Star break.

Though he’s a year older, the foot is undoubtedly better. James said so himself after the Lakers’ win in New Orleans last Sunday.

“I’m still dealing with it, whatever the case may be, some small things here, small things there,” he said. “But I took a lot of pride in the offseason just trying to get my ankle, get my foot right back in order, get my body back in order. And it’s definitely paid off for me throughout the regular season.”

A more energized James means a more effective team on both ends of the court, particular on defense where the Lakers are going to need him sprinting into closeouts on shooters and down into double teams on Jokic.

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If the Lakers’ offense stays alive …

In the last 15 games (not counting the play-in tournament win against New Orleans because the NBA doesn’t count those stats), the Lakers have the sixth-best offense in the league. Their true shooting percentage is tops in the league. Assists are up and turnovers are down.

In those 15 games, five different Lakers are shooting 39% or better from three-point range. Austin Reaves, who is at 30%, has shot it well in big games during his short career.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, and Lakers forward Anthony Davis battle for a loose ball.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Lakers forward Anthony Davis battle for a loose ball during Game 3 of the Western Conference finals last season.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Stopping Denver might be tough. But if the Lakers can keep it rolling on offense, they’ll put plenty of pressure on the Nuggets.

If the Lakers can funnel the ball where they want it to go …

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Coach Darvin Ham was very clear Thursday that the Nuggets, in his view, are more than Jokic and Jamal Murray, a deadly pick-and-roll duo that is undoubtedly at the top of the scouting report.

“Everybody’s got to be on point. We’re not ignoring anyone on that roster. They’re a championship ballclub. Well-deserved. Well-earned,” Ham said. “They’re a tight-knit group that the way they play is seamless. They’re [rhythmic] on both sides of the ball and they know what they want to get out of each possession. So we just have to be ready, got to be on point. Everyone has to be engaged. We can’t ignore anyone.”

Still, the Lakers are going to have preferences.

You know they’d like to try keep Jokic off the block as much as possible. They’re going to try to lock in on Murray off of screens and Michael Porter Jr. in transition. But can they coerce Aaron Gordon and Peyton Watson into trying to beat the Lakers from the three-point line?

If Murray isn’t the second- or third-best player in the series …

It’s probably the most important thing of all. It’s a call on James and Anthony Davis to play like stars on both ends of the court every night of the series while a call on the Lakers’ best perimeter defenders, Reaves, Gabe Vincent and Spencer Dinwiddie, to keep Murray from another playoff heater.

“I mean I’m sure at some point I’m going to be guarding him. I’m sure at some point everyone will guard him,” Vincent said. “It’s going to be a long game. It’s going to take all five, it’s a team game. We’re looking forward to competing and trying to come out with a win.”

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And if they can do it four times … the Lakers can take on a fresh set of challenges and fresh round of “ifs.”

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