Preview: Denver Nuggets host Los Angeles Lakers in clash between West's top two teams

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

If there is one notable trait that could be attributed to the Nuggets (13-4) in their 2019-20 season, it is their ability to rise to the occasion against the best teams in the NBA. The Nuggets are 8-1 against opponents who are .500 or better in the standings and that resilience could be a factor when the Los Angeles Lakers, co-owners of the league’s best record at 17-3, visit Pepsi Center on Tuesday.

Antony Davis has seamlessly fit with the purple and gold, forming a two-headed, inside-out monster with fellow superstar LeBron James. Davis is averaging 26.1 points per game to go along with 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.5 steals in his first 19 games as a Laker, proving he can shine in the bright lights of Hollywood. His successful pairing with James has resulted in Los Angeles being fourth in net rating at 7.6. Still, the Lakers come off a recent setback as they suffered their first loss in 10 games when they fell against the surging Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. After the defeat, said the Lakers won’t lose two in a row ever. Sounds like bulletin-board material for the Nuggets, who will want to rebound from a disappointing loss of their own during the weekend.

Denver has won eight of its last 10 games but saw a 17-point lead slip in an overtime loss to the sub .500 Kings in Sacramento on Saturday. Coach Michael Malone’s team remains the best defensive team in the league as it has the best defensive rating at 101.9 and are holding opponents to just 101.8 points per game (also first). It’s the team’s 18th-ranked offense that will need to improve if the Nuggets are to secure a result on Tuesday.

Improving efficiency on offense

The Nuggets could only muster 40 points in their overtime defeat against the Kings and a decline in execution played a significant factor in that stagnation.

In the first half against Sacramento, Denver had 14 assists on 21 made baskets. In the second half and overtime, they would only have nine. After sitting second in assists (27.4) last season, the Nuggets are sixth in 2019-20 (25.4). Part of the dip could be attributed to the team not converting on easy scoring opportunities. The Nuggets are 22nd in converting on drives to the basket with a 42.7 percent field-goal rate and are 24th in two-point shooting (49.2). On Monday, Denver shooting guard Gary Harris said the Nuggets spent time reviewing tape to solve their recent issue of giving up big leads.

“That’s exactly what our film session was about today. Doing what we do to build those leads, staying aggressive,” he explained. “Don’t play not to lose, play to win.”

The Lakers excel at guarding close shots (fifth) and three-pointers (first), but they’ve shown weakness in guarding midrange shots (28th). That’s an area where stars such as Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokić and Paul Millsap could flourish early in the game before looking for other areas of the defense to exploit.

Get Malik more involved

The Nuggets’ bench has been finding its stride recently and Malik Beasley’s reintegration into the rotation has helped reinvigorate the group. In the last three games, the second unit has averaged 41.3 points per game (ninth in that span) and is shooting 47.8 percent from downtown (third). Beasley has shot 75 percent from behind the arc during that stretch. On the season, the Nuggets’ bench has shot 35.5 percent from downtown (12th) and averaged 34.2 points per game (21st).

The Lakers have one of the best bench units in the league as their plus/minus is fourth at 2.7. Matching or exceeding that group’s production will be pivotal and Beasley could be a difference-maker Tuesday.

Pick your poison: LeBron or AD

Against the Rockets on Nov. 20, the Nuggets showcased their defensive acumen by negating one of Houston’s threats (Russell Westbrook) and sticking to their scheme to make life difficult for James Harden. It was a tactical masterclass and it still arguably remains Denver’s top performance so far this season. More of the same will be needed against James and company Tuesday.

James is averaging a league-leading 10.9 assists to go along with 25.7 points and 7.2 rebounds in the 2019-20 campaign. While it is difficult to take James or Davis off their games, Denver will likely key in on James, forcing him to take mid and long-range shots, attempts on which he’s not quite as dominant. He’s also a below-average free throw shooter this season, shooting 68.1 percent from the line in a career-low 5.7 attempts per game.

Bonus Takeaway: NEW CITY EDITION JERSEYS DEBUT!

One would have to be living under a rock to not have seen the Nuggets’ new sleek black City Edition jerseys. Twitter went absolutely crazy when they were revealed on Nov. 19. They make their debut on Tuesday against the Lakers. Last year, the Nuggets went 5-2 in games where they wore their City Edition jerseys. Hopefully, that will carry over into Tuesday.

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