The Los Angeles Lakers are starting a short two-game road trip with a clash against the Denver Nuggets, which promises to be another entertaining showdown.
L.A. is visiting their Western Conference rivals on the back of five straight home victories, but the quality of their performance didn’t match the results. The defending NBA champions ceaselessly turned the ball over and shot a poor 28.8% from behind the 3-point line during that stretch.
Meanwhile, Denver has bounced back from a three-game losing streak — which began with the 114-93 loss to L.A. earlier this month — thanks to wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The previous clash between the two teams was an extraordinary game. The Lakers lacked intensity and allowed Denver to dominate early in the night, heading back to the locker room with a double-digit deficit at halftime.
But a passionate dressing-down from head coach Frank Vogel galvanized the defending NBA champions, who gave up just 35 points over the next two quarters. They showed a much-improved shot selection in addition to extra aggressiveness and hustle following the lead of Dennis Schroder.
Patience and basketball IQ will be key to victory in the Sunday rematch. The Nuggets allow opponents to shoot 54.4%, a third-highest efficiency in the league. Denver’s rivals also register a second-highest 26.7 assists per game against them.
That creates a fairly straightforward game plan for L.A: avoid turnovers (the Lakers commit fifth-most turnovers in the league), move the ball, and attack the basket. The first directive applies specifically to LeBron James.
The four-time NBA champion recently became the player with all-time most turnovers to his name, passing Karl Malone with 4,526. And he features among the top-10 players turning the ball over with the highest frequency (3.8 per game) this season.
Ridding himself of the sloppiness will be a factor if the Lakers are to beat the Nuggets again. Similarly, L.A. will have to find a way to put the ball in Marc Gasol’s hands more often. James himself spoke about the Spaniard’s fine passing ability, which the team does not benefit from enough.
Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell also could play a major role on Sunday. The latter belongs to the group of players boasting the highest field goal efficiency in the league (64.3%). Finding Harrell in the paint could help the Lakers exert pressure on Denver’s defenders in the painted area.
Meanwhile Kuzma, who has established himself as a force on the glass since the beginning of the season, must step up and help Anthony Davis neutralize Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic. Historically, the versatile Serbian center has struggled against the Lakers.
However, the 25-year-old is having an MVP-caliber season averaging 26.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game – ranking top 10 league-wide in each of the stats. If given a chance to do so, Jokic will be ready to use his ample skillset and hurt L.A. in a variety of ways.
Both teams are searching for in-game rhythm and working out their identity in the aftermath of offseason changes, which again could result in an eye-catching spectacle between two well-armed Western Conference title contenders.
Lakers (21-6) vs. Nuggets (14-11)
7:00 p.m. PT, Feb. 14, 2021
Ball Arena, Denver, Colorado
TV: ESPN, Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Dennis Schroder
SF: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Marc Gasol
Key Reserves: Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews, Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker
Projected Nuggets starting lineup:
PG: Jamal Murray
SG: Will Barton
SF: Michael Porter Jr.
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Nikola Jokic
Key Reserves: Jamychal Green, Monte Morris, R.J. Hampton, Facundo Campazzo
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