The Los Angeles Lakers had a great showing last Thursday against the Phoenix Suns but were unable to build on that last night as they fell 118-116 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Jordan Clarkson enjoyed arguably the best game of his career with 30 points and eight assists while Julius Randle tallied another double-double with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Now the Lakers hit the road for a quick two-game trip, and the first stop is Denver against a Nuggets team trying to hold on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Nuggets are led by one of the league’s best young bigs in Nikola Jokic, the favorite to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season.
Denver mixes veteran savvy with young potential as Jameer Nelson and Gary Harris makes up their backcourt. The veteran Nelson gives them a solid playmaker and shooter who will take care of the ball. He is listed as questionable for the game with a hip flexor, however, so second-year guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who has fallen out of the rotation, could step in if Nelson is unable to go.
Harris is a great shooter and solid defender but has been inconsistent recently. Over the last five games, he has two contests where he has scored at least 24 points but also has one game in single-digits and one where he was held completely scoreless. Regardless, he is capable of getting very hot from the outside so the Lakers can’t afford to give him any space.
Off the bench, rookie Jamal Murray is starting to step it up, especially as a scorer, meanwhile Will Barton has been a thorn in the Lakers’ side every time these two teams have met up over the past couple of seasons.
In something of a surprise move, David Nwaba replaced Nick Young in the starting lineup for Sunday’s game against the Sixers. Young has handled the move well, completely understanding Luke Walton’s decision. Nwaba is a great athlete and defender, and he showed that on Sunday with some great hustle plays. He will likely draw the assignment of stopping Harris, and he should be up to the challenge.
D’Angelo Russell had a rough night on Sunday, finishing with only 11 points on 5-17 shooting, but before then he had been the Lakers best player since the All-Star break. He is averaging 20.5 points and 5.4 assists since the break and with Young now out of the rotation; it will be even more important for him to have his shot working as he is clearly the Lakers best outside shooter.
Jordan Clarkson continued his stellar play of late and has really taken on that sixth man role since the Lakers moved Lou Williams ahead of the NBA trade deadline. He is starting to re-discover his playmaking side which is key. Tyler Ennis also had a solid game on Sunday and has shown himself to be solid in all facets of the game.
The Lakers will be in for a long night (as are most teams) in trying to contain Nikola Jokic. The Serbian big man can hurt you in a variety of ways as he can score inside and out, is a great rebounder, and an outstanding passer. He is a triple-double threat every night, and rookie Ivica Zubac will have his hands full.
Next to their 22-year old star, the Nuggets have a couple of veterans in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Both are capable of getting hot on any given night although neither are known as defensive stalwarts. Needless to say, there is no weak link on this Nuggets front line.
Mason Plumlee, Darrell Arthur, and Juan Hernangomez should all see some time off the bench for the Nuggets. While none should make a huge impact offensively, they bring toughness, rebounding, and some athleticism to the front court. Kenneth Faried, who has given the Lakers plenty of troubles in the past, is listed as doubtful for Monday’s game with back spasms.
As was said previously, Zubac will have his work cut out for him against Jokic, but the rookie has been up to the challenge, for the most part, this season. He had his moments against the Sixers on Sunday, most notably blocking four shots in the first few minutes of the game. He will need to continue to provide that rim protection while also making Jokic work on defense by taking him down to the block.
Julius Randle has gotten back to his outstanding all-around play from earlier this season as he is crashing the glass, scoring in the paint, and setting up his teammates. He has even started trying to expand his range.
Rookie Brandon Ingram meanwhile, continues to show flashes of why the Lakers are so high on him. He’s scored in double-figures in four straight games and is starting to figure out how to finish at the rim. His defense continues to impress as well as he had three steals and two blocks Sunday. This matchup with Gallinari will make him work on both ends of the floor.
The Lakers bring energy and athleticism with their bigs off the bench. Larry Nance Jr. is the team’s best overall defender, and his basketball IQ makes everyone better. Tarik Black is great on the boards and creates possessions while Corey Brewer is the lone veteran remaining in the rotation.
Three Keys To A Lakers Victory:
Guard the Three-Point Line
Denver ranks in the top-10 in both three-pointers made and three-point percentage and has seven players who shoot 35 percent from deep or better. By comparison, the Lakers have two, and one of them (Nick Young) is out of the rotation. Getting in a three-point shooting contest would be a recipe for disaster so the Lakers must make sure they don’t let Denver get hot from deep.
Keep Denver off the Glass
The Nuggets are the best rebounding team in the league and were particularly strong on the offensive glass. Offensive rebounds lead to open three-pointers which is something the Lakers can not allow. Zubac and Randle will be primarily tasked with this, but ultimately the entire team must crash the glass. Russell, Nwaba, and Clarkson are all capable rebounders from the guard spots so they must chip in as well.
Get D’Angelo Russell Going
The Lakers are a much better team when Russell is playing up to his potential as he mixes scoring with setting up his teammates better than anyone else on the roster. He has a major size advantage over Nelson so allowing him to work on the block could be a good move. Regardless of how it happens, Russell must be at his best for the Lakers to come out with a victory.
Denver Nuggets (31-35) Vs. Los Angeles Lakers (20-46)
7:30 P.M. PST, March 13, 2017
Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado
Radio: 710 AM (ESPN)/1330 KWKW (Spanish)
Projected Nuggets Starting Lineup:
PG: Jameer Nelson
SG: Gary Harris
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: Wilson Chandler
C: Nikola Jokic
Key Reserves: Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, Darrell Arthur
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: D’Angelo Russell
SG: David Nwaba
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Julius Randle
C: Ivica Zubac
Key Reserves: Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Corey Brewer, Tyler Ennis, Tarik Black