Game Preview: Nuggets Brace for Test from Vastly Improved Lakers

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider

They can all be termed “must win” games at this point. With 17 games remaining, the Nuggets are hitting a critical stretch of the schedule where they see six teams under .500 in their next seven contests.

Not that the Nuggets are watching too closely.

“We’ve just got to get out there and focus on playing basketball,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said. “Taking it one game at a time, controlling what we can control. Stop looking at the standings and just win games.”

Two of those games versus teams under .500 are against the L.A. Lakers. The first of those two is Friday night at the Pepsi Center. Yet, before you think this is a breeze against a team that is headed for the lottery, think again: The Lakers, stocked with some of the NBA’s best young talent, are playing some of their best basketball of the season right now.

They are 6-1 in their last seven games – and four of those wins have come on the road featuring notable victories at the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat.

So, what’s changed?

The steady improvement of players such as Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram is one thing, although Ingram is out of this game due to injury. A bench that has received a huge boost with the addition of high-scoring guard Isaiah Thomas in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, is another. Thomas, in fact, is the Lakers second-leading scorer (18.4 points per game) in that span. Randle is the team’s leading scorer (18.9) and rebounder (9.7) during this stretch.

If you extrapolate things further, the Lakers have the seventh-best record in the NBA (18-8) since Jan. 5. Things are a lot different than when the Nuggets beat the Lakers on Dec. 2 while they were in the midst of their second-longest losing streak of the season.

So, this is not a walk in the park for the Nuggets by any means.

“So what concerns you?” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Transition. I think they are second in the NBA in fast break points per game, so you have to get back. And once you do get back, you have to protect the paint. … And the last thing is when you get back, protect the paint, you have to gang rebound. They are second in the NBA in second chance points per game.”

All of this also does make the venue important. The Nuggets are one of the NBA’s best home teams despite having lost their last three at the Pepsi Center. Additionally, they are 8-2 in the last 10 home games against the L.A. Lakers, including that win on Dec. 2. The Nuggets and Lakers have met twice and split those two meetings this season.

“They are going to be a heck of a challenge,” Malone said. “They are playing well.”

Christopher Dempsey: and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.