Preview: Denver Nuggets look to even season series against Lakers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Throughout the course of an NBA regular season, there are going to be some nights where shots aren’t falling and a team just needs a few breaks and defensive stops to secure a victory. For the Denver Nuggets, that was the case Friday night in a 97-95 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The win marked Denver’s second in-a-row, but now the reigning NBA champions come to Ball Arena to truly test the Nuggets. Sunday’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers marks the fourth and final game of the homestand for Denver, who is looking to make a statement on the national stage.

MORE: Takeaways from win over OKC

While Nikola Jokić has continued to perform at an MVP level, the Nuggets have been searching for more consistency and balance on the offensive end. Jamal Murray bounced back with a 22-point performance against Oklahoma City, and the Nuggets will need both Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to have big performances on Sunday.

The Lakers are winning, but they are also familiar with grinding out tough victories. Three of LA’s past four games have gone to overtime, with those contests being against the Detroit Pistons and aforementioned Thunder. Anthony Davis has been dealing with an Achilles injury but returned to drop 35 points against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.

Los Angeles easily won the first meeting between these two teams 114-93 back on Feb 4.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., 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.

WILL BARTON III – PERSONAL REASONS. OUT.

JAMAL MURRAY – LEFT ANKLE SPRAIN. QUESTIONABLE.

TUNE IN: 8 p.m. MT, Altitude TV and ESPN, 92.5FM

Key matchup: Porter Jr. vs. LeBron James

After a dominant run in the 2020 postseason, James has come out of the gates strong during the early portion of this 2020-21 campaign. With averages of 25.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game, the 36-year-old is building a serious case for a fifth MVP trophy.

In the Feb. 4 meeting between these two teams, James controlled the game with ease, eventually finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists on 12-of-19 shooting from the field. James is proving that age is just a number, as he continues to perform at an elite level on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile, Porter Jr. continues to find his footing within Denver’s offense. The 22-year-old forward hasn’t scored more than 20 points in a game since his 30-point outburst against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 25. Although Porter Jr.’s shooting percentages have continued to impress over the past 10 games (49 percent from the field, including 43.4 percent from downtown), the sophomore has only averaged 13.9 points per game during that stretch.

With Barton III ruled out for Sunday’s contest, look for Porter Jr. to take on a larger role in the offense. How the 6’10” forward fares in this role against an elite Lakers defense could go a long way in deciding Sunday’s contest.

Win the battle on the boards

The Lakers do a lot of things well on the defensive end (they rank in the top 11 in all four factors – opponent effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebound percentage, and free throw rate), so it’s hard to take advantage of one area of the floor when on offense.

However, Denver’s best shot (besides getting hot from deep) is to crash the offensive glass and create an advantage on the boards. Although Los Angeles ranks seventh in opponent offensive rebound percentage, Denver continues to be a dominant team on the offensive glass, ranking second in the league.

In that first meeting between the two teams, Denver doubles up Los Angeles on the offensive glass (16-8) but struggled to make shots to stay in the game. The Nuggets shot just 58.8 percent at the rim and 25.9 percent from beyond the arc in the non-garbage time minutes. If Denver can continue to exploit teams on the offensive glass, it will have a better chance of pulling off the upset on Sunday.

Patrol the paint on defense

The Lakers’ offense will require multiple efforts from Denver’s help and weakside defenders on a possession-by-possession basis. Los Angeles generates a majority of its offense inside the paint and around the rim, which is where Denver has struggled defensively this season.

The Lakers rank seventh in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the rim (36.5 percent), and an even more impressive second in field-goal percentage at the rim (68.8 percent). On the other end of the floor, Denver has done a nice job of limiting attempts at the basket (just 29.9 percent of opponent shot attempts have come at the rim, ranking fifth in the league), but when teams get to the basket against the Nuggets, they usually don’t miss.

Opponents have shot 69.6 percent within four feet of the rim against Denver this season, which is the highest in the league. In that Feb. 4 meeting, 49 percent of the Lakers’ shot attempts came at the rim, where they shot 77.1 percent.

When defending a Lakers team that ranks below average in 3-point attempt frequency and percentage, the Nuggets will have to make a concerted effort to pack the paint in hopes of limiting Lakers drives to the rim.

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