First-Round Series Preview: #2 Nuggets vs. #7 Lakers

Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

Run it back.

So, here we are. A rematch between two familiar foes, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets. Poetic, isn't it? Denver and Los Angeles have faced off three separate times in the last five postseasons. All roads always seem to lead back to this matchup.

A year ago, the Nuggets sent the Lakers packing in a quick four-game sweep in the Western Conference Finals. Denver followed that up by defeating Los Angeles in all three regular-season meetups this season. They enter Saturday's Game 1 on an 8-game winning streak versus the Lakers.

Denver represents the Western Conference as the No. 2 seed after going 57-25 to tie the franchise's single-season win record. Los Angeles, meanwhile, finished in seventh place and defeated the New Orleans Pelicans, 110-106, on Tuesday night to escape the clutches of the Play-In Tournament.

As familiar as this matchup may feel, each opponent has some subtle differences. That brings us to the first section of this series preview...


On a macro level, Los Angeles has made some philosophical changes. They spent their offseason retooling their roster and brought in veterans like Taurean Prince, Gabe Vincent, and Jaxson Hayes. This shifted the Lakers toward a more offensively-slanted outlook.

Los Angeles finished the season with the NBA's twelfth-best offense, an improvement from last season's 20th-place finish. That came at the expense of their defense, of course, which ranked in the top four in the second half of the 2022-23 regular season; this season, the Lakeshow defense finished 16th overall.

The catalyst for the Lakers' fortified offense was a wholesale improvement in shooting. Los Angeles finished with the eighth-best three-point percentage in the NBA at 37.7 percent. That is a DRAMATIC improvement over last season when the Lakers finished 25th in three-point accuracy at just 34.6 percent. League-average from three-point land is 36.6 percent, so they basically went from an extremely subpar shooting team to an above-average one.

The biggest change for Denver is their defense. They went from having the 17th-best defense in the 2022-23 regular season—the year they won the championship, by the way—to a ninth-place finish on defense this season. That'll be a fun battleground; Denver's improved defense versus Los Angeles' revamped offense and spacing.

Statistically speaking, the biggest question for the Lakers is can they defend the Nuggets? Denver posted a scintillating 123.3 offensive rating in the 2023 Conference Finals. Their offensive rating this year against the Lakers? 124.8 points per 100 possessions. Eek! That's the type of scoring you get while playing a video game on easy mode.


Anthony Davis → Nikola Jokić 
Rui Hachimura → Aaron Gordon 
LeBron James → Michael Porter Jr.  
D'Angelo Russell → Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 
Austin Reaves → Jamal Murray

Let's get this out of the way: It wouldn't be crazy to expect a big series from Jamal Murray. Denver's point guard, well, loves playing the Lakers... to put it lightly.

A dearth of perimeter defenders doomed the Lakers in the Conference Finals, and Murray took full advantage by averaging a series-high 32.5 points per game on 52.7 percent from the field. There's a strong case to be made that Los Angeles has even fewer options to contain Murray. Dennis Schröder, a starter for the Lakers in the Conference Finals, departed in free agency, and Jarred Vanderbilt, another high-usage Murray defender, played just 29 games this season due to a laundry list of injuries. He did not suit up for Tuesday's Play-In game against the Pelicans.

Murray averaged 24.7 points on 50.8 percent from the field and 47.7 percent from deep, plus 9.1 assists, in his three regular-season outings against the Lakers this season. He looked utterly unbothered by pretty much every single defender head coach Darvin Ham threw at him.

I have Austin Reaves mocked as Murray's primary defender among Los Angeles' starters, and Murray made 6-of-10 shots in the 7:41 total minutes he and Reaves were matched up this season. Gabe Vincent is a fairly untested option for Los Angeles, but we've seen that movie before in the 2023 NBA Finals when Murray averaged 21.4 points and 10 assists against Vincent and his former employer, the Miami HEAT.

Defending Nikola Jokić will be another tall task for Ham. Breaking news! Guarding the best player in the world is hard! Anthony Davis will likely get the first crack at Jokić, but Nikola has proven time and time again that his strength and motor are tough for Davis to keep up with.

Now, Los Angeles could go to a different look by having Rui Hachimura guard Jokić as the primary defender with Davis lurking nearby as a secondary shot-blocker. That adjustment made headlines at the beginning of last year's Conference Finals. Even that has its pitfalls. Like he tends to do, Jokić used his supercomputer mind and a strong sample of 7 regular season and playoff games to devise counters to the "Rui Hachimura adjustment."

On post-ups, instead of driving directly into Hachimura's body, he'll spin away from the basket and loft fading hook shots—where Davis' 7'6 shot-blocking wingspan can't quite reach them. He'll take short-range fall-away jumpers over the top of Hachimura while Davis watches helplessly. The midrange is another comfort zone for Jokić. Davis can't really affect Nikola as a shot-blocker when he's 12-to-15 feet away from the rim, and the 6'8 Hachimura doesn't blot out much airspace against a talented jump-shooter like Jokić.

When Murray and Jokić link up for their lethal pick-and-roll, Nikola will catch the ball at the free-throw line and take a runner instead of rolling all the way to the basket where Davis awaits. The best way to remove AD's impact as a weakside rim protector is to just not go anywhere near him.

Jokić averaged 29.3 points on 55.2 percent shooting, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists against the Lakers this year. He's ready for whatever they throw at him.

Assuming things shake out this way, LeBron James guarding Michael Porter Jr. should be fun! MPJ was FAN-TAS-TIC against the Lakers this year and averaged 21.3 points on 50.8 percent shooting and 52.4 percent from deep. Featuring Porter Jr. on an endless set of off-ball plays could be a great way to exhaust James, which could affect his output on the other end. Make 39-year-old LeBron navigate handoffs and pindown screens for a full series. That requires a ton of energy... and focus.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope holds a great deal of significance as an offensive player in this series, but we'll save that for a later section...

And then finally, there's Aaron Gordon, who should have an integral role in this series. Not only is he Denver's full-time lob-slammer, but he can also punish some of Los Angeles' smaller players. Denver will often run off-ball plays to get Gordon post-ups against opposing guards. From there, he can mash and pulverize them with his bruising strength. Laker perimeter defenders already have their hands full with Murray, and Gordon's battering ram-like physicality is another method of wearing them down.


Nikola Jokić → Anthony Davis
Aaron Gordon → LeBron James
Michael Porter Jr. → Rui Hachimura
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope → D'Angelo Russell
Jamal Murray → Austin Reaves

So, a brief disclaimer. We're not going to talk a ton about Denver's defense here aside from just listing out the projected matchups. That's for a later section! Caldwell-Pope guarding D'Angelo Russell might be the most important matchup in the series. We'll get to that shortly! Porter Jr. guarding Hachimura will also be incredibly important for Denver's help defense, but again, we'll get to that!

Here's the main thing I wanted to note. Facing LeBron James in round one should be a CHALLENGE. Last year, Denver ran into James in the third round after 12 grueling playoff games. It certainly felt like James ran out of gas in multiple Conference Finals games due to his heavy workload. This year, LeBron's coming off a week of rest with zero playoff games under his belt. He should be much fresher. Aaron Gordon was James' primary defender last postseason and did a great job of forcing him into tough shots, but James is the NBA's all-time leading scorer for a reason.


The Nuggets outscored the Lakers by a full 17 points in the clutch this season. That includes Denver's dramatic butt-kicking on March 3rd in which the Nuggets outscored the Lakers, 14-4, in the final five minutes.

Los Angeles has long been without an antidote to Denver's lethal two-man game between Jokić and Murray, in large part a reflection of their scarcity of defenders for either star.

Denver's been creative about using their two best players in combination. They've done more than just run straight pick-and-roll. For example, in the first game of the 2023-24 NBA season, the crunch time Nuggets repeatedly went to an "elbow series" with Jokić holding the ball at the left elbow, and Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope screening and splitting apart. They went to that same setup in later games—with Jokić at the elbow and Murray playing off that—to similarly efficient results.

Murray and Jokić's two-man game has been so efficient against the Lakers that it has them seeing ghosts out there. No, literally. Watch Anthony Davis in the clip below lurch back toward Jokić at the expense of a Murray layup.

Point being, the Lakers have been without an answer to the Nuggets in close-game situations. In fact, Los Angeles has looked exhausted and bewildered in those moments, and they've settled for bad shots. Pull-up three-pointers from players who feast at the basket. Jumpers out of the pick-and-roll instead of strong rolls and energizing dunks. Playing that way is hard; the physical toll of living at the rim cannot go unnoticed. But many times, it just feels like the Lakers... don't really have go-to plays when it matters. Or at least, nothing like Denver's bread-and-butter two-man game between Jokić and Murray.

What might that look like for Los Angeles? Well, here's an example. Los Angeles has gotten some great stuff by using LeBron James as a screener. That dates back to last season's Conference Finals, and it's certainly held firm in this year's regular season.

Los Angeles has probably left some food on the table with this action. They haven't run it over and over and over like the Nuggets do with the Murray and Jokić pick-and-roll. And look, it makes sense. Screening and rolling isn't exactly the most glorifying task for a star player like LeBron. It's also really physically taxing. Denver would devise counters to it, as well. But given the success Los Angeles has had with using James as a screener, it's surprising we haven't seen it more in crunch time. Maybe that's something we'll see in this first-round series. It will be fascinating to see how Denver counters if Los Angeles does indeed go this route.

I've made the joke before, but every game against Los Angeles has felt the exact same since the Conference Finals. A close three quarters. Maybe Los Angeles is able to build a slight second-half lead. And then in crunch time, the Nuggets take over. We've been watching the same TV show on repeat since last May. It's on the Lakers to change the plot line.


The Lakers ran the ninth-most pick-and-roll possessions this season. They went to that playtype a lot! Denver, remarkably, finished with the NBA's fourth-best pick-and-roll defense according to points per possession. Their ability to guard the screen-and-roll game was, by far, the biggest reason for their defensive ascendance.

So, how will the good guys guard their opponent's pick-and-rolls in the first real test of the postseason? Here's my guess.

D'Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves shot 39 percent and 37.2 percent, respectively, on off-the-dribble three-point shots this season. Gabe Vincent didn't have a great year with the long ball, but he's got some pedigree as a shooter. Expect to see Jokić playing "at the level" against pick-and-rolls involving any of the Laker guards.

Here's an example of what that looks like. When Vincent came off this pick-and-roll, Jokić stood at the top of the key to provide Reggie Jackson extra help. Nikola positioning his body that high up took away the off-the-dribble shot from Vincent. That's what "playing at the level" means.

Against everyone else—so, mostly LeBron James—Jokić should play much lower on the floor in a "drop coverage." Notice his positioning here, below the free-throw line instead of above it like he was against Vincent. James is having a great season as a shooter, but he's made just 33.8 percent of his pull-up three-pointers. It's more valuable to keep Jokić planted near the basket against James, even if that comes at the expense of some off-the-dribble shots. He's just too dangerous up close.

One thing that really stood out in the film was just how liberal Denver was about helping off Hachimura, especially when he was stashed in the corners. When Los Angeles went to the pick-and-roll, Denver would have Hachimura's man cheat over early into the middle of the painted area and completely wall off the rim. Here, that's Porter Jr. cheating off Rui to gum up Max Christie's roll to the basket.

Hachimura was a 42.2 percent three-point shooter this year, but he made just 34.7 percent of his shots from deep in his previous four seasons. Denver played those percentages.

Los Angeles averaged the second-most points in the painted area this season. It's a major component of their offense—living near the rim. So, Denver clogged the paint with extra bodies at the expense of potential outside shots from historically inconsistent shooters like Hachimura. It was a risk they felt was worth taking.

Given their record against the Lakers since last March, who's to argue with that strategy?


Here's maybe the most important statistic of this first-round series, at least from the Lakers' side of things.

Los Angeles is 20-6 when D'Angelo Russell scores 20 or more points. They were 7-0 in the 2023 postseason when Russell scored 17 points or more. Their success has long been tied to his scoring. Of note: He did not break 10 points in a single game of the 2023 Conference Finals sweep.

Russell had a career year as a scorer with 18 points per game on 45.6 percent from the field and a career-high 41.5 percent from three-point range on more than 7 attempts per game. Since the turn of the new year, he's been a 20-point-per-game scorer. So much of Los Angeles' offensive success can be derived from Russell's career-best season. Cutting off the head of the snake will be paramount for the Nuggets.

Denver will likely designate 'DLo' duties to Caldwell-Pope, their All-Defensive Team-caliber perimeter defender. Christian Braun should also get a lengthy look. Russell is many things as a scorer. Crafty. Skilled. Gifted with a soft shooting touch. But he's not much of an athlete, both vertically and in terms of foot speed. That's where Braun enters the picture, a 6'7 springboard of a perimeter defender who can jump out of the gym with a 40-inch vertical. CB's athleticism really seemed to bother DLo this season. He shot just 25 percent against the recent 23-year-old in three games.

Russell's impact will likely decide the length of this series...


Playing Russell off the floor, or getting close to it, is one of Denver's best avenues toward building an early series advantage. Given that he'll likely be DLo's primary defender, this almost automatically makes Caldwell-Pope the biggest X-Factor for the Nuggets. His defense alone could change the series. It wouldn't be the first time that happened.

Defense isn't the only way to mitigate Russell's impact. He's the Lakers' weakest defender in their starting lineup, so attacking him on that end could put more pressure on him to perform offensively. If he's unable to do both—score and defend—well, hmph, the Lakers might have to start asking some tough questions. That's how things played out last year when Russell, a Game 1 starter in the Conference Finals, saw his playing time fall to just 15 total minutes in the do-or-die Game 4 (Russell averaged just 6.3 points per game on 32.3 percent shooting in the series).

Caldwell-Pope can help Denver attack Russell's defense. The Lakers will likely try to "hide" Russell on KCP just because he's fifth in the pecking order of average shots. Denver can counter by having Caldwell-Pope run the pick-and-roll with Jokić to force the switch of Russell guarding Nikola. Similarly, Denver can go to guard-guard pick-and-roll sets between Murray and Caldwell-Pope, and if Los Angeles switches, Murray can then bully Russell in the post. He loves taking opposing guards to the woodshed.

Denver can even run specific sets for Caldwell-Pope to pick at Russell's defense. They love having KCP cut from the corner to the elbow around one of Jokić's sturdy screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers, and here, Nikola's pick destabilizes Russell as he tries to keep up with Kenny P (We should really call this play the "KCP Cut," by the way).

Russell's footspeed really hurts him defensively, and although Caldwell-Pope isn't a high-volume ball handler, Denver can use his off-ball movement to exhaust and frustrate the Laker ball-handler.

Caldwell-Pope finished with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting in his one regular-season appearance against the Lakers. He averaged 14.8 points per game on 48.9 percent shooting and 44.4 percent from three in the Conference Finals, by far a high for KCP in any 2023 playoff series. Listen, I don't want to put words in his mouth, but it certainly seems like, I don't know, maybe, perhaps, he takes this matchup a little personally? Against the former employer that sent him packing to Washington in the Russell Westbrook blockbuster of 2021? Is that crazy to throw out there?

Either way, KCP will have his work cut out for him with Russell. If he can continue to score the ball like he has against the Lakers, things could get spooky. He certainly feels like the obvious X-Factor because of his importance on both sides of the floor.

Game 1 between Denver and Los Angeles will tip Saturday at 6:30 p.m. MT and air on ABC.

All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats, Synergy Statistics, Basketball Reference, or Cleaning the Glass unless stated otherwise.