After bulldozing the Timberwolves in five games and knocking off the Suns in six, the Nuggets have a chance to advance their first Finals in their NBA franchise history. And to get there, Denver must take down an opponent that’s been the Nuggets’ kryptonite for most of their existence.

The Nuggets and Lakers have faced each other in the playoffs seven times: 1979, 1985, 1987, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2020. The Lakers have won all seven of those series. Four of those meetings came in the first round. Three were in the Conference Finals.

When Denver and Los Angeles matched up in the 1985 West Finals, the Lakers dismantled the Nuggets in five games. In their 2009 affair — the series where Anthony Carter couldn’t inbound the ball, not once but twice — the Lakers won in six. In the 2020 playoffs — the one in the Disney World bubble where Mason Plumlee tried to switch a screen that didn’t exist — the Lakers won in five.

But playing the Lakers this year and at this time in the Nikola Jokic era, just feel right. To make the story of this era of Nuggets basketball complete, Denver should have to exorcise its past playoff demons. It would make a championship that much more special. For Jokic to prove his standing as the unquestioned best player in the NBA, he should have to go through LeBron James. For a flyover, disrespected, and many times straight-up forgotten team like the Nuggets to prove their legitimacy, they should have to beat the franchise that’s lived the ultimate NBA life of luxury and prestige. What an opportunity the Nuggets have.

The Lakers beat both the Grizzlies and Warriors in six games to get to the Conference Finals. Now, they get the No. 1 seed.

Game 1 of Nuggets-Lakers is Tuesday night (6:30 pm MT) at Ball Arena.

Key storylines that will shape the series

Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis

Holy shit. What a matchup this will be. Let’s flashback to the 2020 Western Conference Finals for a second. Davis got the better of Jokic in that series, definitely outplayed him, and Jokic had what’s by his standards now considered a bad playoff series.

Jokic averaged 21.8 points (53.2 FG%, 35.7 3P%), 7.2 rebounds, and 5 assists per game against Davis and the Lakers in 2020. It’s the lowest scoring average Jokic has had in his postseason career (his second lowest was 23.1 points per game in the 2019 first round vs. the Spurs, which was Jokic’s first career playoff series). The Lakers were able to use their length — an effective Dwight Howard averaged 20.2 minutes per game and JaVale McGee averaged 7.6 minutes and played double-digit minutes in Los Angeles’ Games 1 and 2 wins — to bother Jokic.

Davis was sensational. He averaged 31.2 points and was a scoring machine. It felt like he couldn’t miss a jump shot at times. Defensively, he matched up on Jokic but was also a roaming, weak-side rim protector that Jokic and the Nuggets’ offense had to constantly worry about. In the playoffs this year, Davis has been a beast on the defensive end of the floor.

The Lakers will surely guard Jokic 1-on-1 with Davis more than they did in that 2020 series, simply because Los Angeles doesn’t have the overall length that they did three seasons ago. Jarred Vanderbilt, a former Nugget, started 11 of the Lakers’ 12 playoff games and will spend a lot of time guarding Jokic. He’ll be barbeque chicken in the post and doesn’t have the size or strength to make Jokic work. Rui Hachimura, who comes off the Lakers’ bench and is averaging 21.2 minutes per game in the playoffs, has six fouls that he can use against Jokic too. Do the Lakers dare dust off Tristan Thompson? When Los Angeles signed him on the final day of the regular season, I wondered if it was solely for this matchup. At least Thompson is strong, but that’s about it.

This series could very well come down to the Jokic-Davis matchup and how the Lakers’ elite post-trade deadline defense guards the Nuggets. Can Davis, who’s defending at a Defensive Player of the Year level in these playoffs and averaging 3.3 blocks per game, frustrate Jokic? Will both players be able to stay out of foul trouble? Will Davis’ durability in what’s sure to be a physical matchup in the paint be a factor? It’s going to be a titanic clash of big men.

Do the Nuggets change up their bench rotation?

The Nuggets’ bench was excellent in Round 1 and was still excellent in Games 1 and 2 vs. the Suns. Then, it began to nosedive. Denver was outscored by 24 points in th 36 minutes that Nikola Jokic was not on floor for in Games 3-6. Things got so bad that we thought rookie Peyton Watson could get some run.

I’m expecting Michael Malone to enter the Lakers series with his same three go-to options off the bench — Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, and Jeff Green — firmly in the rotation. He might adjust throughout the series if needed. The Lakers have been elite in the playoffs with LeBron James off the floor so far (13.8 Net Rating in the minutes James sits) and Dennis Schroder is having a big postseason off the bench. Lonnie Walker IV of course won Game 4 of the Lakers-Warriors series by coming out of nowhere to drop 15 points off the bench in the fourth quarter of that pivotal Los Angeles win.

The bench minutes will be a key battleground in the series.

Lakers rotation

Starters: D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, LeBron James, Jarred Vanderbilt, Anthony Davis

Reserves: Dennis Schroder, Lonnie Walker IV, Rui Hachimura

Next up but currently out of the rotation: Shaq Harrison, Troy Brown Jr., Malik Beasley, Tristan Thompson, Wenyen Gabriel

The officiating

This is going to be a storyline. The officiating is going to matter simply because this is the Lakers. They had the biggest free-throw differential in the regular season and now do again in the playoffs.

You’ve got to think that a key part of the Lakers’ game plan is to get Jokic in foul trouble because Denver is finished if he’s not able to control every game. Anthony Davis has attempted the sixth-most free throws in the playoffs and drew draws 5.1 fouls per game, the 13th most in the postseason. Austin Reaves is someone that the Nuggets will have to keep off the line too.

Keeping Jokic out of foul trouble and getting Davis into foul trouble would tilt this series dramatically in the Nuggets’ favor.

DNVR Nuggets’ X-factors

Adam Mares: Michael Porter Jr.

Defensively he’s going to be tested. The Lakers will be harder to double so players will be forced to guard 1 on 1 more than in the previous rounds. Porter will find himself on an island in this series and in the spotlight. Is he ready? Offensively he’ll have opportunities to shine behind the arc, as a cutter, and on the offensive boards, the three areas he’s most comfortable. But volume will be important here. Bad shooting nights will stand out more than ever before, as will quiet nights on the glass. Porter can’t be an every other game player in this series. The Nuggets need his production every night. Mares

Harrison Wind: Michael Porter Jr.

Porter needs to be better than he was in Round 2. This is a much better defense than the Suns and the Lakers can take away more than Phoenix did. He just has to hit shots while the defense is focused in on Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Porter shot 37.8% from 3-point range against Phoenix and will have to be more efficient against the Lakers. He needs to keep himself more involved in the offense too, keep moving when he doesn’t get the ball, and stay locked in. Defensively, the Lakers will try and spread the Nuggets out and run a heavy dose of pick-and-roll with LeBron James handling the ball. Porter is going to find himself as the Nuggets’ “low man” quite often and will be relied on to rotate over if Denver traps the ball handler. He’s going to have a lot of responsibility on that end of the floor. – Wind

Brendan Vogt: Aaron Gordon

AG is Denver’s best defender and he’s off to an impressive start on that end in the playoffs. First, playing up to guard KAT. Then, an impressive job slowing Kevin Durant. LeBron James and Anthony Davis provide the most physical matchups yet for him. He can change the tide of the series if he keeps it up.

Dev Johnson: Aaron Gordon

The X-factor and most important player for a third-straight series is no other than Aaron Gordon. Mr. Nugget is tasked with yet another impossible task of slowing down the opposing team’s best player. He had to try and slow down KAT, KD, and now LeBron, and he has held his own the first two times. This time shall be no different. What a gauntlet of opponents for him, but that is what you bring Gordon in for. He has already earned his big paycheck, and with another incredible series he will exceed it. Expecting big things for him. – Dev

Eric Wedum (D-Line): Jamal Murray

Jamal will be hunted by larger defenders in the Lakers, and his ability to rise above and be the running mate that Jokic needs to get to the promised land will be the difference in this series. – D-Line

Dec 16, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) moves the ball against Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) during the second half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Series Predictions

Mares: Nuggets in 7

Wind: Nuggets in 5

Vogt: Nuggets in 6

Dev: Nuggets in 6

D-Line: Nuggets in 7

Author

Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind

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