LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will attempt to overcome the formidable challenge posed by Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets as the Western Conference playoff finals get under way on Tuesday.
After struggling through the regular season, the Lakers are within four wins of returning to the NBA Finals after ousting the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Friday.
Now James and Lakers defensive star Anthony Davis are plotting an ambush of the top-seeded Nuggets in game one of their best-of-seven Western Conference finals series on Tuesday.
The showdown is a rematch of the Lakers-Nuggets 2020 playoff series in the NBA’s Covid-19 bubble in Orlando, when the Lakers won 4-1 before going on to win their 16th championship.
Since then, however, Denver has matured significantly, with Jokic winning back-to-back NBA MVP awards in 2021 and 2022 as part of a team that also includes the talented Jamal Murray.
James said Monday he has no doubt that the 2023 version of the Nuggets will be a stiffer proposition.
“They’re a better team,” James said when asked to compare Denver with the team beaten in Florida three years ago.
“Obviously, they’re more experienced. Every game, every postseason, every matchup allows you to continue to grow as a franchise, as a team, and they’ve done that.
“So, we come in with the utmost respect for this team that we’re challenged against and playing against, so look forward to the matchup.”
Denver and the Lakers squared their meetings in the regular season at two games apiece, with the Nuggets winning their most recent encounter on January 9.
Drawing firm conclusions from those results, however, is largely meaningless as the Lakers overhauled their roster in the mid-season trade window and James and Davis did not feature in the most recent January game.
Davis said the Lakers planned to pore over footage of the 2020 series in an attempt to design a game plan capable of nullifying Jokic and the Denver line-up.
“I think the biggest key will be making the ball find the guys we want it to find, just play off of that,” Davis said.
While the Lakers have been red-hot through the playoffs, with Davis rediscovering his best form at the perfect time, James says he is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his team-mates.
“They’ve been the No. 1 team in the West for a reason,” said James.
“They’ve played exceptional basketball all year. And we’re going in with the utmost respect for their ballclub. They’re very well coached and obviously we know the dynamic of what Joker [Jokic] brings to the game and also Jamal Murray, being back fully healthy. And the rest of those guys.
Jokic goes into Tuesday’s series-opener in blistering form, averaging a triple-double of 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists in the series win over Phoenix.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham described Jokic as “that monster in the Rocky Mountains that’s waiting on us.”
“You’re talking about a two-time MVP, with a well-balanced squad, hungry, great synergy, great chemistry, great ability, athleticism, shooting, all of the above,” Ham said.
“So, we’re going to have our work cut out for us, but they gotta guard us too, so we’re going to do our due diligence as we always do and be prepared for Game 1.”