The Los Angeles Lakers are facing the Denver Nuggets on Monday to conclude the season series and, most importantly, to find out whether their revitalized performance a couple of days prior was indeed a sign of improvement.
The Lakers finally showed glimpses of their pre-hiatus form over the weekend despite falling 116-111 to the Indiana Pacers. They made 13 threes, the most since the Orlando bubble experiment started, on a much better looking 33% from beyond the arc. Quinn Cook sank five 3-pointers himself and finished with 21 points, emerging as a perimeter threat in the absence of Danny Green while LeBron James exploded for 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Green is expected to return on Monday, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will sit out as a precaution after his ankle was stepped on during the loss the Pacers. The guard’s unavailability means more backcourt tinkering for Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
“Obviously with Avery out, he’s become one of our more important players with what he can do on the defensive end,” Vogel said of Caldwell-Pope, who did not miss a single game last season. “Great respect for guys like that, that play every night.
“In terms of the backend, we’re still going to look at different combinations and get guys involved,” Vogel added. “We’re not going to have a full, ‘This is our playoff rotation’ mindset. We’re still going to work in some guys to get familiar in our system and the way we’re playing.”
As Vogel’s experiments continue, JR Smith, Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris could play bigger roles on Monday after sitting out the entire Pacers game. And they better make the most of the opportunity as Vogel is making final decisions on his playoff rotation. Especially after Cook and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker, who scored 10 points in the last two games, made a case to be part of it against the Pacers.
Some Lakers have been putting some extra work in to address their shooting struggles and the Nuggets clash seems like a great opportunity to show the effort is paying off. Denver’s perimeter defense has been flailing in the Orlando bubble allowing the opponents to shoot 44% from downtown.
It could present the purple and gold with an opportunity to take advantage of the open looks they often missed in the previous seeding games. The Nuggets showdown also presents Anthony Davis with a chance to bounce back after another feeble performance.
While James stepped up, the All-Star power forward struggled with double-teams again and finished with just eight points and eight rebounds. Davis admitted after the game he has to do better to help the team win games. A strong effort against Denver’s paint dominator Nikola Jokic could be a much-needed confidence boost.
Jokic scored 30 points against the Utah Jazz to secure a 134-132 comeback win in double overtime on Saturday. And against the Lakers, he will have the support of Orlando bubble revelation Michael Porter Jr., whose point average jumped from 9.2 to 25.6 since the seeding games began, and Jamal Murray, who scored 23 points in his return from a hamstring injury.
The Nuggets, who are yet to clinch a seed in the Western Conference, might be trailing in the season series, but they will be a stern challenge to the Lakers’ defense, especially with Caldwell-Pope out. And, above all, they will serve as a great test for the troubled Lakers offense, still worst among all the teams in Orlando.
Lakers (51-18) vs. Nuggets (46-24)
6:00 p.m. PT, Aug. 8, 2020
ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Florida
TV: TNT, Spectrum SportsNet
Radio: ESPN L.A. 710
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kyle Kuzma
PF: Anthony Davis
C: JaVale McGee
Key Reserves: Dion Waiters, Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, JR Smith, Talen Horton-Tucker
Projected Nuggets Starting Lineup:
PG: Jamal Murray
SG: Torrey Craig
SF: Michael Porter Jr.
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Nikola Jokic
Key Reserves: Jerami Grant, Monte Morris, Mason Plumlee, P.J. Dozier
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