Preview: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers clash in battle between Western Conference heavyweights

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets (38-16) are currently enjoying the third-longest active win streak in the NBA and hope to take an edge in their season series against the Western Conference-leading Lakers (40-12).

Denver has won four in a row and is coming off a dramatic victory against the Spurs Monday, rallying from 23 points behind to secure a 127-120 win. After struggling to find consistency on offense and defense throughout parts of the season, the Nuggets have been assertive on both ends during their win streak and possess the second-best net rating in the NBA during that span (12.5). Jamal Murray’s emergence since his return has catapulted Denver into the No. 1 rated offense over its past four games, with a 121.5 rating. Equally as impressive has been the team’s renewed focus on defense.

Denver has posted a defensive rating of 109 (fourth) during its win streak, showing some of the tenacity it had during the first two months of the season where the team had a No. 1 rated defense. In the team’s 16 losses, its defensive rating slips to 115.4. As good as the offense has been lately, defense is head coach Michael Malone’s calling card and remains the backbone of this team. The Nuggets will need another strong night on that end when hosting Los Angeles.

The Lakers are 6-4 in their last 10 games, showing some cracks in their façade, but remain the NBA’s top road team at 22-5. The team is coming off a dominant win against the Suns, crushing Phoenix by 25 points at home. Turnovers have been the Lakers’ Achilles Heel in their recent losses, as they’ve been giving up the ball 18 times per game in their last four defeats. Still, Los Angeles has two players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis who can almost singlehandedly will their teams to wins. This will be a tough test for the Nuggets ahead of the NBA’s All-Star break.

The season series is tied 1-1 with both teams winning at each other arenas. Denver has won three of its last five games against Los Angeles.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 8:00 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, ESPN RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM

Here are the storylines to watch for:

Pride at stake

These are two teams who are vying to come out of the Western Conference when the NBA Finals roll around. This could be a potential preview of the Western Conference Finals. Make no mistake this is a big game, especially considering the fact both teams are almost at full strength.

With the Nuggets being humbled at home in the season series opener between the teams and Denver securing a win against a James-less Lakers, Wednesday’s contest is the perfect opportunity to send a message to the rest of the league.

“They are the best team in the West, they are playing real well. We know AD and LeBron are monsters, I think they are averaging 55 or 60 points per game combined,” Nikola Jokić said after the Nuggets win over the Spurs. “It’s going to be tough but if we want to be the best, we need to play and beat the best.”

Can Jamal Murray keep it up?

Murray has been lighting it up since his return from an ankle injury and the Nuggets will need more of the same if they want to beat their Western Conference rivals.

The 22-year-old guard is averaging 28.3 points and 5.3 assists on 58.9 percent shooting over his past four games, a stretch that might be considered his best in the regular season. Murray’s decision-making and fearlessness from behind the arc is partially responsible for his sizzling stretch. During the last four games, Murray is taking 7.8 threes a game and converting at 48.4 percent. Prior to his injury on Jan. 15, Murray was averaging 5.0 attempts from downtown a game, knocking it down at 32.2 percent. It is unrealistic to expect Murray to keep hitting threes at almost 50 percent, but his confidence and aggressiveness has stood out. If it continues, it could bode well for him and Denver.

Battle of the boards

For the Nuggets to secure a win against the Lakers, they’ll need to win on the glass. It’s a task that’s easier said than done.

The Lakers are currently first in the NBA in allowing the fewest rebounds to their opposition, giving up just 41.6 to their opponents. The Nuggets are fifth in that category (43.2). Los Angeles is currently seventh in rebounds per game (46.2), whereas Denver sits 18th at 44.9.

In the first matchup between the two teams, Los Angeles outrebounded Denver 56-35 and won 105-96. When the Nuggets beat the Lakers on the road, the boards battle was a lot closer with Denver being outrebounded by just one. They will need to stay active in that area Wednesday night.

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