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Preview: Denver Nuggets take defending champion Los Angeles Lakers for the first time this season

 

It has been less than five months since the Nuggets and Lakers faced each other in the 2020 Western Conference Finals. Despite the series going just five games, it was a competitive matchup with three of five games being decided in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The two teams finally meet again in a national-televised matchup on Thursday night.

 

Both sides come in with significant changes on their rosters. Dwight Howard, Danny Green and Rajon Rondo are no longer on Los Angeles and the likes of Marc Gasol, Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell among other new arrivals. Denver has seven new faces on their roster as well. The first matchup between the two teams will be a good measuring stick on where the two contenders are at this stage of the season.

The Nuggets and Lakers enter Thursday’s contest as two of the hotter teams in the league, with both winning seven of their last 10 games. Due to Monday’s game against the Pistons being postponed, the Nuggets will have fresher legs than expected after a three-day break. It is a nice boost considering the task ahead against the defending 2020 NBA champions.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

INJURY REPORT:

GREG WHITTINGTON – LEFT KNEE ARTHROSCOPY. OUT.

P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. OUT.

GARY HARRIS – LEFT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

TUNE IN: 8 p.m. MT, TNT

Here are the storylines to watch for:

Key matchup: Nikola Jokić vs. Anthony Davis

While Nikola Jokić and LeBron James are the focal points of their team’s offenses, the two men will likely spend minimal time guarding each other Thursday. Where things can get interesting is whenever Jokić lines up against Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ star big man.

Davis enters the contest averaging 22.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists on 52.4 percent shooting. While his numbers aren’t as gaudy as they’ve been in the past, he remains a superstar-level threat the Nuggets have to account for. Taking away three-point shooting will be key to slowing him down. The Lakers are 6-1 when Davis hits one or more threes. Davis is shooting 32 percent from three on the season, but has struggled in his last 10 games, hitting at just 18.7 percent. Denver can’t afford to allow him to rediscover his touch from long-range.

Jokić continues to make his case as the front runner of the MVP award, with the Serbian becoming the first Nugget since Carmelo Anthony in 2009 to be named the Western Conference Player of the Month.

The Lakers have the best defensive rating in the NBA at 104.8 and are superb at guarding three-pointers, holding opponents to just 34.3 percent shooting (third). If there is one area where they struggle, it’s defending the paint.

Los Angeles is 25th in points allowed in the paint, giving up 49 points per game in that area. The team also allows opponents to convert at 61.3 percent in shots that are less than five feet. Considering the Nuggets excel in scoring the paint, this should be key part of their gameplan. Denver enters Thursday’s matchup with the No. 4-ranked offense at 115.6 and points in the paint is a big reason why. The Nuggets are fifth in the NBA in that area, scoring 49.9 points inside. If the group can get going early at the rim, it could pay dividends and open up long-range shooting.

 

Can MPJ build off previous promise vs. LA?

It is a small sample size, but Michael Porter Jr. has caused some matchup issues for the Lakers in the past.

There was the 6 of 6 shooting night he had against them in the NBA’s restart on Aug. 8, pouring in 15 points and four rebounds in just 24 minutes. He followed that by averaging 12.2 points on 56.4 percent shooting in the Western Conference Finals in 21.7 minutes per game.

With injuries to Gary Harris and P.J. Dozier, it should open up more minutes for the second-year forward against James and Company. The Lakers’ veteran has already singled-out Porter Jr. for praise in the past. It will be interesting to see if Porter Jr. can play a big role Thursday.