10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Lakers -5, Over/Under; 216.5
A rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals is on tap tonight from the City of Angels, as the reigning NBA Champions, Los Angeles Lakers, play host to the surging Denver Nuggets from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Heading into the Playoffs last year, the Nuggets (12-8, 4th in Western Conference) were a bit of an afterthought, but when it was all said and done few teams saw their stock rise more so. Denver’s resiliency became their calling card as they rallied back from successive 3-1 deficits, stunning the heavily-favored Los Angeles Clippers in the Semifinals, before eventually running out of gas in five games against the Lakers. And it’s with that said that (Head Coach) Mike Malone and (General Manager) Tim Connelly thought that the best approach to this abridged offseason was keeping the band together, which they managed to do for all intents and purposes, with the only departures being (versatile Forwards) Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, with the former inking a lucrative three-year/$60 million sign-and-trade deal with the Detroit Pistons. One of the younger teams within the West’s hierarchy, the train of thought was that the young nucleus still had plenty of room to grow, particularly when you consider the continued maturation of (Forward) Michael Porter Jr. (16.6 PTS, 55.9% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.9 BLK, 23.3 PER). Just 22-years old, Porter logged just 16.4 minutes per game after missing the entirety of his rookie campaign rehabbing from back surgery, though nonetheless flashed serious potential in his limited time on the hardwood. With Grant out of the way, the former fourteenth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft has seen his workload increase to 26.2 minutes a night, though he missed ten consecutive games due to becoming the subject of the league’s COVID Health/Safety Protocols. Since his return, the smooth 6-10 (Redshirt) Sophomore has averaged 14.7 points on 55.2% shooting from the field, including 57.1% from beyond the arc, along with 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals over the last six games, which have coincidentally parlayed into a 5-1 stretch for the Nuggets. Interestingly, Malone has insisted that porter still come off the Bench, though it’s hard to fathom any future with the club where he is not the ideal complement to (All-NBA Center) Nikola Jokic (26.8 PTS, 57.4% FG, 38.4% 3FG, 11.8 REB, 8.6 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 31.3 PER), who continues to prove just how unique a talent he is. We’ve heard of Point Forwards, but this guy is a legitimate Point Center; the Serbian international is one of just two players in the NBA to lead his team in scoring (26.8), rebounding (11.8), assists (8.6), and steals (1.8), all of which stand as career-highs, oftentimes running the offense from the top of the key, with his height allowing him to see over defenders and his smooth touch routinely finding his teammates cutting to the rim cycling out to the perimeter for open looks. His is a rare case of the shortened offseason benefitting his conditioning, for Jokic arrived to the Bubble in the best shape of his career, and this quick turnaround has helped him maintain that physique, with Denver now reaping the rewards as a result. After initially getting off to a slow start (1-4), Malone’s charges have since ripped off eleven off their last fifteen outings, including six of their last seven, ascending to the top of the West’s crowded midsection of postseason hopefuls; currently trailing the Lakers by three games in the standings, the Nuggets lead a seven-team group that is separated by just 2.5 games, clinging to a scant half-game advantage. During this recent string of success, their offense has been dominant, averaging 118.9 points on 48.2% shooting from the field, including 39.8% from downtown, while dishing out 27.1 assists in comparison to committing 13.0 turnovers, and outrebounding the opposition by a commanding 7.6 boards per game. As you can imagine, Jokic has played a MAJOR role during this run, posting averages of 30.0 points, 12.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.4 assists while shooting an efficient 57.5% from the floor, including 37.9% from long-range.
“Hopefully, I’m going to score when we need it. It’s just a game. The main thing is just win the game. I’m going to score however much I need just to win the game.”Nikola Jokic on 47-point performance in Sunday’s 128-117 victory over the Jazz, snapping their 11-game winning streak
When we last saw the Nuggets, they made quite the statement in their return to Ball Arena following a successful 5-1 road trip, beating the NBA-best Utah Jazz in a 128-117 affair that snapped their opponent’s eleven-game winning streak. Things started quickly for the hosts, who outscored the visitors 43-29 in the First Quarter (a season-high), shooting a scintillating 80.0% from the field, including 8-of-8 from beyond the arc (100.0%) in the period. Denver wouldn’t slow down in the following frame of play, netting 13-of-24 of their attempts in the second (54.2%) en route to a commanding 79-54 lead at Halftime (also a season-high). At one point the lead had inflated to twenty-eight, but Utah would embark on a furious rally in which they outscored them 37-24, knocking down 8-of-16 threes (50.0%). However, the home side would collect themselves and stave off any further rally in the fourth, as the aforementioned Jokic matched his career-high with forty-seven points (thirty-three of which came in the First Half) on 17-of-26 shooting (65.4%), including 4-of-4 from downtown (100.0%), and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line (90.0%), along with a dozen rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals. Five other players scored in double-figures for the Nuggets, including (veteran Guard) Will Barton (11.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.6 BLK, 12.0 PER) who finished with eighteen points on 6-of-11 shooting (54.5%) and 5-of-6 from the perimeter (83.3%), while (sharpshooting Guard) Jamal Murray (18.9 PTS, 45.5% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 15.6 PER) added another sixteen points, four rebounds, and five assists. The aforementioned Porter and (Argentina international) Facundo Campazzo (3.8 PTS, 36.1% FG, 37.2% 3FG, 0.8 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 9.3PER) chipped in with eleven points apiece off the bench, shooting 7-of-12 on the night (58.3%). Denver also held huge advantages in points in the paint (48-24), while also turning fifteen Utah turnovers into twenty-eight points. Unfortunately, their momentum would be paused on the next night, for their matchup with the Detroit Pistons was postponed shortly before tip-off due to concerns over COVID-19. With that said, they should be well-rested for tonight’s rematch with the Lakers, whom they will see again in just ten days time. During that aforementioned meeting in the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets had a difficult time slowing them down, allowing Los Angeles to shoot 50.2% from the field, while Murray and Jokic combined for 46.8 points over the course of the series’ five games.
Meanwhile, as their opponent tonight stood largely pat during the Association’s abbreviated offseason, one would have fully expected the defending champions to have done the same but that was not the case with the Lakers (16-6, 2nd in Western Conference), who were one of the busiest teams on the market. After cementing their relationships with (All-NBA selections) LeBron James (25.0 PTS, 49.0% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 7.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 24.3 PER) and Anthony Davis (22.3 PTS, 52.4% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 8.7 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.9 BLK, 24.9 PER) for the foreseeable future, Los Angeles parted ways with a number of veterans from their supporting cast, including (Centers) Dwight Howard and JaVale MaGee alongside (Guards) Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, and Avery Bradley, each of which having played understated roles in capturing the franchise’s NBA-record Larry O’Brien trophy. (Head Coach) Frank Vogel and (General Manager) Rob Pelinka got down to business replacing those venerable figures with younger pieces, adding the likes of (Power Forward) Montrezl Harrell (13.2 PTS, 63.6% FG, 6.3 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.7 BLK, 21.7 PER) in Free Agency, and (Point Guard) Dennis Schroder (13.6 PTS, 42.1% FG, 30.6% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 11.9 PER) in exchange for Green in a deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. At 27-year of age apiece, Harrell and Schroder finished first and second in Sixth Man of the year voting, and bring a sorely-needed sense of youth, energy, and creativity to a rotation that at times relied far too-heavily upon the exploits of James on the offensive end of the court. Vogel and Pelinka also brought back (sharpshooting swingman) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.4 PTS, 47.2% FG, 47.9% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.2 PER), while adding some more veteran depth in the form of (Center) Marc Gasol (3.8 PTS, 38.6% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.2 BLK, 10.3 PER) and (Guard) Wesley Matthews (4.7 PTS, 39.7% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 1.1 REB, 1.0 AST, 7.5 PER), bringing some more spacing and shooting to an attack that lacked it last season. While the offense has certainly opened up, shooting 48.0% from the field (5th Overall), including a much-improved 38.1% from beyond the arc (7th Overall), up from 34.9% last season no less, the defense has remarkably remained elite in yielding a league-best 104.0 points per contest (1st Overall) on 45.2% shooting from the floor (8th Overall), including 51.2% from within the arc (9th Overall) and 34.3% beyond it (3rd Overall), the fewest free-throws made (13.4) and attempted (17.6), along with the top defensive rebounding percentage in the NBA (80.5%). Vogel has gone to great lengths to rest both James and Davis when granted the opportunity, with the former logging a career-low 33.5 minutes per game and the latter oftentimes sitting out the second leg of back-to-backs. Tonight’s contest marks the first that the Lakers have played at STAPLES Center since January 18th, a 17-day period in which they’ve participated in seven games on the road, recently ending their road trip at 5-2 culminating in a win over the Atlanta Hawks (more on that in a bit). Vogel’s charges only played eight of their twenty-two games thus far at home, putting together a 4-4 record in the process, despite an NBA-best 12-2 record away from STAPLES. In those eight home games they’ve been far less effective on the defensive end, relinquishing 110.0 points on 46.8% shooting and 34.0% from downtown, along with 25.0 assists and 12.8 turnovers, in comparison to permitting 100.6 points on 44.2% shooting and 34.1% from three, with 23.5 assists opposed to 13.7 turnovers on the road.
“At the end of the day, I’m just happy fans are back in the building. I missed that interaction. I need that interaction.”LeBron James on his interaction with a heckling fan in Monday’s 107-99 win at the Hawks
When we last saw the Lakers, they capped that aforementioned road trip with a 107-99 victory at the Atlanta Hawks, which featured a bit of unexpected drama. Early in the Fourth Quarter with Los Angeles in firm control on the strength of a commanding 16-0 run, James got into a short verbal altercation with a fan on the sideline, who briefly removed their facemask to make themselves more clear. The Officials paused play and waited for security to remove the individual from their seat. Inspired by the incident and the remaining 1,341 fans at State Farm Arena, the hosts rallied back with a Trae Young three-pointer cutting the deficit to one, only for James to respond in kind. The four-time MVP immediately drilled a three of his own on the following possession, and then came up with a crucial block of Clint Capela, before finishing off the ensuing fast break with a layup. Four consecutive free-throws later, and the king saw his side to another victory. After scoring just nine points in the First Half, the 36-year old ended the affair with twenty-one points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field (41.7%), including 2-of-6 from beyond the arc (33.3%), and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line (81.8%), along with seven rebounds, nine assists, and a pair of steals. Davis added another twenty-five points on an efficient 10-of-14 shooting (71.4%) and three blocks, with the tandem of Schroder and Harrell proving their value, as the the former totaled sixteen points on 6-of-10 shooting (60.0%) against his former team and the latter chipped in with nineteen points on 8-of-9 shooting (88.9%) in just over twenty-eight minutes off the bench. Monday’s victory marked the thirty-first consecutive victory in which Vogel’s troops have earned a win in which they held an opponent below 100 points, as they relegated the Hawks to 47.4% shooting from the field, including 11-of-29 from downtown (37.9%), while forcing them into nineteen turnovers which parlayed into twenty-one points for the visiting side. The Lakers also held firm advantages in fast break points (Plus-12) and free-throws (Plus-6), all the while shooting a torrid 51.9% overall from the floor as they logged their eighth victory over Atlanta in their last nine meetings. Now with eleven of their next fourteen contests to be hosted at STAPLES Center, including each of their next five outings, Los Angeles will be looking to pick up where they loft in last year’s gentleman’s sweep of Denver in five games; though only one chapter of that series was decided by more than ten points, the eventual champs would ride their stars to victory, with James and Davis accounting for 58.2 points per game on 53.4% shooting from the field, with 16.6 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.4 blocks between them, as the latter authored the biggest moment of the series when he drilled the walk-off three-pointer to take Game Two, 105-103.