NBA Playoff Preview: L.A. Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets

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SEASON RECORDS


Lakers: 41-25 (3 seed)
Nuggets: 38-28 (6 seed)

SEASON SERIES


The Lakers took three of the four regular season meetings from the Nuggets, with the only loss coming on New Year’s Day in Denver. All the games were close, however, with L.A.’s margin of victory never being greater than six points.

KEY INJURIES

Lakers: There are no players who will be unavailable due to injury to start this series for the Lakers. The Artest now known as Metta World Peace is serving a seven-game suspension for the elbow he landed on the head of James Harden, so we won’t be seeing him face the Nuggets unless there is a Game 7.

Nuggets: None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Lakers: offense 103.3 (10th); defense 101.7 (13th)
Nuggets: offense 106.6 (3rd); defense 103.4 (19th)

THREE KEY LAKERS:

Kobe Bryant: Bryant has played this season, for the most part, at an extremely high level. The shin injury he suffered at the beginning of April that forced him to miss seven games may have been a blessing in disguise, as the famously competitive Bryant wouldn’t likely have chosen to get any rest before the playoffs otherwise. As anyone who has watched this Lakers team closely can attest, the preferred and more successful strategy is for Bryant to pace himself offensively, while making sure his teammates get plenty of touches in the game’s early going — instead of making sure to take as many shots as humanly possible, no matter the defense.

Andrew Bynum: It’s been an interesting season for Anrew Bynum, to say the very least. What the Lakers hope to see in the postseason is the dominant, big man that Bynum showed he can be at multiple times this year, instead of the petulant man-child who engages in nonsense on the court that’s detrimental to the team’s efforts. The pressure of the postseason and the veterans on this team should be enough to keep him in check, but should he become disinterested or show a lack of maturity by needlessly picking up technical or flagrant fouls, it could severely impact his team’s chances.

Ramon Sessions: This will be Sessions’ first trip to the postseason in his career, and his performance, especially against this Denver team, will be critical to the Lakers’ success. Sessions will need to stay in front of Ty Lawson defensively, and will need to control the tempo on the offensive end, while resisting the urge to match the speed of Denver’s game.

THREE KEY NUGGETS

Aaron Afflalo: The Nuggets’ two-guard has really stepped his game up late in the season, and he’s going to be trouble for the Lakers. He regularly plays 40 minutes per game, and his scoring average and field goal percentage numbers were way up over his yearly averages in the last month of the season. He’s efficient and able to score in a variety of ways, so the Lakers will try to force him into taking low-percentage, highly-contested shots. Good luck with that.

Ty Lawson: Tempo is going to be the key to this series, and Lawson’s speed will be extremely tough to contain. He makes everything possible offensively for Denver, and offense is where games in this series will be won for the Nuggets.

Kenneth Faried: The rookie nicknamed “Manimal” is as athletic and energetic as they come, but he manages to play under control at the same time. The Lakers will need to be aware of him on both ends of the floor, and make a conscious effort to put a body on him to prevent those hustle plays that give his team extra possessions.

OUTLOOK

The Lakers have the best frontcourt in the game with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and one of its best players in Kobe Bryant. From a talent standpoint, Denver is overmatched. But the Nuggets have been playing excellent team basketball to end the season, finishing the season winning six of seven, and eight of their last 10 games.

Tempo will be the key to this series. If Denver is able to get out in transition and make these high-possession games, the team will have a chance to get some wins in this series. Overall, though, expect the Lakers to play a smart, focused brand of basketball that utilizes their strengths in the first round of these playoffs.

Denver should mostly keep things close, and may get a couple of wins as the Lakers try to find their postseason selves. L.A.’s size down low, along with the presence of a healthy Kobe Bryant, will ultimately be too much.

PREDICTION

Lakers win 4-2.

Watch Dennis Schroder hit the most casual half-court buzzer beater ever

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Act like you’ve done it before.

The Lakers’ Dennis Schroder drained a half-court buzzer-beater against the Knicks — turning his back on the shot and being completely non-pulsed when it happened.

The Lakers had been 2-of-16 from 3 before that shot, and they ended up needing those points. Despite a historic triple-double from LeBron James, the Lakers had to go into overtime to beat the Knicks, 129-123.

Three things to Know: Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Is Nikola Jokić going to win third straight MVP?

That’s a weird headline to write just days after Joel Embiid outplayed Nikola Jokić head-to-head. Embiid absolutely is in the MVP mix again this season — 33.6 points and 10 rebounds per game with strong defense will do that — and that 47-point game is the kind of thing that sticks in voters’ minds. Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in there, too (not sure Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry will play enough games to win the award).

But Jokić is averaging a triple-double this season — 25.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10 assists — and his team is in first place in the West. It’s a season worthy of a third straight MVP. If someone is going to dethrone him, well, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Jokić had 28 points, 16 rebounds and 15 assists on 10-of-14 shooting in the Nuggets’ win over the Pelicans on Tuesday night — Denver is now 16-0 this season when Jokić has a triple-double.

Heading into the season there was a sense MVP voters would be hesitant to make it a historic three straight MVPs for Jokić — putting him in Larry Bird and Bill Russell territory — when the Nuggets haven’t been to the Finals yet. However, Denver sits atop the West and looks like a contender with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy.

Plus, Jokić’s numbers are undeniable — the Nuggets are 20.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season. They win because of him, Denver gets outscored by 8.5 points per 100 when he is off the court. And we’re not going to dive into EPM, VORP and the rest of the advanced stats, just know they love Jokić like no other, too.

Jokić may not win his third MVP, there are other deserving guys in the mix and we have 30+ games to go this season. Just don’t be shocked if he does, he has been that good.

2) LeBron has historic night as he chases big his historic night

LeBron James is now just 89 points short of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He probably passes KAJ next week, Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387 career points, LeBron is now at 38,299.

First he made some history on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, making him the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

More impressively, with those 11 assists he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. Think about that for a second, the league’s all-time leading scorer is fourth in assists, too.

The Lakers couldn’t hold on to a late lead in regulation — LeBron missed a couple of long jumpers that could have sealed the win — and Los Angeles needed overtime to get the 129-123 victory. They needed it after dropping two games to start this road trip. Anthony Davis moved back into the starting lineup and the Lakers need to string together a few weeks of wins to climb back into the play-off — or even the play-in mix — or all this history by LeBron will be squandered by the franchise.

3) Banchero, Henderson lead group that will make Rising Stars worth watching

The Rising Stars challenge is often the forgotten child of All-Star weekend. It takes place on Friday night and isn’t all that interesting.

This year may be different — a deep cast of talent will play in the new format that was a hit last season. The 28 players will be divided into four teams of seven, with those four teams going into a tournament bracket. The games were not timed, but players competed to a target score of 40 — something that last season led to the young stars defending and playing hard. It was entertaining.

Here’s the list of who will be playing:

Rookies

Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic), Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons), AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks), Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons), Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz), Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers), Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings), Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers), Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets), Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs), Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Sophomores

Jose Alvarado (New Orleans Pelicans), Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors), Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jalen Green (Houston Rockets), Quentin Grimes (New York Knicks), Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets), Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers), Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans), Alperen Sengun (Houston Rockets), Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic)

The G-League team will consist of:

Sidy Cissoko (G League Ignite), Scoot Henderson (G League Ignite), Mojave King (G League Ignite), Kenneth Lofton Jr. (Memphis Hustle), Mac McClung (Deleware Blue Coats), Leonard Miller (G League Ignite), Scotty Pippen Jr. (South Bay Lakers)

It’s a group worth watching on Friday night (Feb. 17) of All-Star weekend.

Watch LeBron’s big night: Moves into fourth in assists, triple-double, win over Knicks

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LeBron James always saves something special for Madison Square Garden.

LeBron had a triple-double of 28 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds — he became the first player in NBA history to have a triple-double in his 20th season.

That wasn’t the only bit of history, with those 11 dimes he moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into fourth on the NBA’s career assists list. And if that wasn’t enough, the 28 points moved him within 89 points of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record: Abdul-Jabbar has 38,387, LeBron is now at 38,299.

For LeBron, however, what mattered most was the win — 129-123 in overtime, giving a Lakers team starved for wins its first on this road trip out East.

“I didn’t get to this point in my career by thinking about records or how many points I have, whatever the case might be,” LeBron said, via the Associated Press. “I just play the game the right way. I approach the game every night only trying to be a triple threat by scoring, rebounding, assisting, defending, and may the chips fall where they may.”

LeBron had help, with Anthony Davis adding 27 points and nine rebounds. The Knicks got 37 from Jalen Brunson, and Julius Randle had 23 points and 12 rebounds.

LeBron needed that help as he wasn’t the sharpest he had been this season, starting 2-of-8 from the floor, then missing a couple of long jumpers in the game’s final minutes when the Lakers had the chance to seal the win. But he was good enough and put on a show for the sold-out crowd in New York.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
89

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,299

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, although that would be by one point, so Feb. 9 against Milwaukee is certainly a possibility.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”