December 3, 2019: Lakers 105, Nuggets 96.
It was an early-season inconsequential loss, but one that packed a ton of meaning. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the 18-3 Lakers came into what was then known as Pepsi Center and sent a message to the young, upstart Nuggets and mainly Nikola Jokic, who the season prior had won his first career playoff series: They ran the West.
Davis, who was battling flu-like symptoms that night, finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He easily outplayed Jokic, who had more turnovers (5) than made baskets (4) and couldn’t solve the Lakers’ Davis-Dwight Howard-JaVale McGee frontcourt trio that would eventually end the Nuggets’ playoff run later that season in the Western Conference Finals. But In Nuggets circles, it’s a loss that’s stuck with many. Because from it, a more determined Jokic emerged.
That Lakers home defeat occurred at the start of a season where Jokic became addicted to the weight room. He came to training camp that year out of shape — you remember the photo — and played a lethargic first couple of months. His 13-point night against the Lakers came on the heels of three-straight games where he scored in single digits.
However, Jokic eventually locked in, both on and off the floor. He made his second-straight All-Star team. Then after a four-month pandemic pause to the season, he entered the NBA bubble with a slimmed-down frame. People around the team believed that loss to Davis motivated Jokic. It stuck with him. It showed Jokic the shape he needed to get in and the mentality he had to play with every night.
Right now, Jokic is a completely different beast than he was that season and during that Conference Finals playoff run. He was great then but is at the top of the league now. Jokic was the most efficient post-up scorer in the NBA this regular season while also finishing second in the league in total assists. He’s tougher and stronger than he’s ever been. He shot 38.3% from 3-point range, which was almost a new career high, and has upped that to 47.5% in the playoffs. He led the NBA in +/- and every advanced stat. He’s played the second-most minutes on what’s been the fifth-best defense in the postseason.
Jokic is coming off a series vs. the former Western Conference favorites, the Phoenix Suns, where he averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 10.3 assists and controlled the game at an unreal level.
Why am I picking the Nuggets to beat the Lakers in five games? It’s because of Jokic. He’s unstoppable, unguardable, and right now looks unbeatable.
And that’s not to say that Jokic won’t be tested in this series. He will be. Davis is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level. He’s averaging 3.3 blocks per game in the playoffs, and the Lakers found a way to beat the Warriors last round. He’s going to be effective. But I don’t think Davis alone can shut down Jokic.
That’s the biggest difference between this series and the 2020 Conference Finals meeting between Denver and Los Angeles. The Lakers mainly guarded Jokic with Howard in that series. Howard had the size and strength to body Jokic in the post. McGee gave the Lakers even more length and allowed Davis to spend the majority of that series guarding someone else. It worked. The Lakers held Jokic to 21.8 points per game, which is still the fewest points he’s averaged in a playoff series in his career. They don’t have that luxury and frontcourt depth anymore.
Jokic is the most toughest assignment and the most difficult player in the NBA to guard. It’s incredibly grueling and tiring to match up with him. Jokic beats you up inside. He likes to wrestle and grapple down low. Jokic is listed at 284 pounds — 31 pounds heavier than Davis — and never gets tired. He should be able to wear Davis out, especially at altitude. If his 3-ball is working, Jokic can drag Davis and his rim protection away from the paint. If it’s not, he’ll take Davis into the post and take what the defense gives him.
“Nikola, to me, has been the definition of greatness for a while now,” said Michael Malone.
No one can win a series by themselves, and Jokic will need his role players to step up and provide support. It won’t be easy considering this Lakers’ defense is elite on paper. Los Angeles currently has the No. 1 ranked defense in the playoffs. Their guards will try to tire out Jamal Murray, guard him full court, and get into him physically. Aaron Gordon, who the Lakers will surely let beat them from beyond the arc, will need to make some 3s.
But this Nikola Jokic is a player that the NBA has never seen before, and he’s an entirely changed player from the one Davis and the Lakers saw in that 2019 regular season game and the 2020 playoffs. There’s no answer for him. There’s no game plan to stop him. He’s proven that no matter the defense, he’s still going to control the game. You get the sense that he’s in a great headspace mentally entering this series too. He’s at ease and ready for the challenge.
Winning in five games might sound overconfident against James, Davis, and the Lakers. But how could you not feel that way after watching what the best player in the NBA has done so far in these playoffs?