Preview: Denver Nuggets look to extend winning streak vs. Lakers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets’ 2020-21 season was supposed to be “over” once Jamal Murray was lost for the rest of the season due to a left ACL injury. Then came injuries to Monte Morris and Will Barton III, leaving Denver with a depleted backcourt rotation.

However, led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokić and a rising Michael Porter Jr., Denver has continued chugging along, now 9-1 in its last 10 games and winners of five in a row. The latest victory was the most impressive, a 110-104 road win over the LA Clippers.

MORE: Takeaways from win over Clippers

Jokić led the way with 30 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists while Porter Jr. added 25 points of his own. Denver’s second unit defended at a high level, which allowed the Nuggets to gain control of the game late in the first half.

Denver (43-21) continues its stay in Los Angeles for a Monday night showdown against the Lakers.

Los Angeles will be on the second night of a back-to-back following a Sunday matchup with the Toronto Raptors. With LeBron James recently returning from injury, the Lakers are focused on regaining on-court chemistry heading into the playoffs.

These two teams split the first two games of the season series back in February.

Projected starters: Facundo Campazzo, PJ Dozier, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić

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

Key matchup: Michael Porter Jr. vs. LeBron James

Porter Jr. has certainly risen to the occasion following Murray’s injury, serving as Denver’s second option on offense on a nightly basis and continuing to produce at a high level. Following a month in which the 22-year-old averaged 23.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 55.3 percent shooting from the field and 42.5 percent from beyond the arc, Porter Jr. began May with another dominant performance against the Clippers.

The second-year forward chipped in five assists to go along with his usual scoring and rebounding, which tied a career-high for assists in a game. Following a game against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Porter Jr. now gets to begin the week with a game against James.

James will need time to shake off the rest following his extended absence due to an ankle injury, but teams have learned to never count the 36-year-old out. James averaged 24.5 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game across the first two meetings of this season series, so the Nuggets are certainly aware of the damage he can do.

The battle on the boards

The Lakers do a lot of things well on the defensive end (they rank in the top seven 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 sixth 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. In Denver’s 122-105 victory on Feb. 14, the teams tied on the glass with 38 rebounds each.

If Denver can continue to exploit teams on the offensive glass, it will have a better chance of pulling off the LA sweep Monday.

Pack 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 much of its offense inside the paint and around the rim, which is where Denver has struggled defensively this season.

The Lakers rank sixth in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the rim (36.7 percent) and eighth in field-goal percentage at the rim (67.1 percent). On the other end of the floor, Denver has done a nice job of limiting attempts at the basket (just 31.2 percent of opponent shot attempts have come at the rim, ranking eighth in the league), but when teams get to the basket against the Nuggets, they usually don’t miss.

Opponents have shot 68.2 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. In Denver’s win on Feb. 14, Los Angeles attempted 41 percent of its shots at the rim and converted at an 81.2 percent clip.

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.

Statistics as of May 1.

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