Preview capsule for the Denver-Los Angeles Lakers Western Conference finals series that starts Tuesday:
No. 1 DENVER NUGGETS (53-29, 8-3) vs. No. 7 LOS ANGELES LAKERS (43-39, 8-4)
Season series: Split, 2-2
Schedule: Tuesday and Thursday at Denver, Saturday and Monday at Lakers, May 24 at Denver if necessary, May 26 at Lakers if necessary, May 28 at Denver if necessary.
How they got here: Nuggets beat Minnesota 4-1 and beat Phoenix 4-2; the Lakers beat Minnesota in the play-in round, beat Memphis 4-2 and beat Golden State 4-2.
Storyline: The Lakers are seeking their 33rd trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron James is seeking his 11th and the Nuggets are seeking their first. Denver has been the team that everyone has chased in the Western Conference for most of the season; the Nuggets moved atop the conference standings in mid-December and stayed there the rest of the way. The Lakers started 2-10 and didn’t spend a single day over the .500 mark until March 31. But they’re 18-6 in their last 24 games, the NBA’s best record over that span.
Key matchup: Denver’s Nikola Jokic vs. the Lakers’ Anthony Davis. Jokic cannot be stopped. The two-time MVP is Mr. Everything for Denver, a triple-double machine who makes scoring, passing and rebounding look so easy. But Davis is one of the best defenders in the game and likely one of the few players in the NBA who truly can make life difficult for someone as strong and skilled as Jokic.
Injury watch: There isn’t much to report here. James and Davis have nagging issues that require them to be on the injury report, but unless something else happens, they’re always going to play.
Numbers of note: Denver is 40-7 at home this season, on pace for the NBA’s best home record since Golden State went 45-5 in 2016-17. … It’s a rematch of the 2020 West finals from the NBA's bubble restart, won by the Lakers in five games on their way to a 17th championship. … Among those who played in that series, only two Lakers (James and Davis) and three Nuggets (Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) remain with those clubs. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a Laker then; he’s a Nugget now. … James averaged 25 points in three games vs. Denver this season, while Davis averaged 18.3 points and 11 rebounds. ... For the Nuggets, Jokic was one assist shy of averaging a triple-double (23.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists) against the Lakers this season, and Murray averaged 22.8 points. … The Lakers and Nuggets haven’t faced off since Jan. 9. … The only player to start for the Lakers in all four games against Denver this season was Patrick Beverley — who is no longer with them. LA used 18 different players against Denver this season; eight of them no longer play for the Lakers.
Prediction: Jokic is so good, and the Nuggets are so deep and have had a quiet swagger all season. But the only reason James still plays is to chase championships, and while he’s clearly far from washed up even at 38 and finishing his 20th season, he knows there aren’t too many more great title shots left. Expect a long, close series. Lakers in 7.