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Four Keys for the Lakers to Stun the Nuggets

Mar 2, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) grabs a rebound in front of Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the first half at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

During the Lakers’ media day in October, Anthony Davis discussed the team’s loss to the Nuggets in last year’s Western Conference Finals, and how motivated LA was to face them this season:

“It was just a lot of talking…We get it, y’all won. But me and Bron had some conversations. It’s like, ‘We can’t wait.’”

The Lakers weren’t as fortunate in the regular season, as Denver swept them in the three matchups they played together. But after beating the Pelicans in a thrilling Play-in matchup, the purple and gold finally have their chance at redemption in the first-round of the 2024 playoffs.

If the Lakers want to surprise Denver and the rest of the NBA, here are four keys they must capitalize on.

Four Keys for the Lakers to Stun the Nuggets

Domination From the Dynamic Duo

As always, the Lakers will be relying on the shoulders of Davis and LeBron James to carry them through the playoffs. The duo played well in the season series against Denver. James averaged 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while Davis put up 22 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game. However, the postseason is a different beast, and these two need to step their games up in the process.

LeBron will no doubt be the catalyst on both ends of the floor, generating most of the team’s points through buckets and assists while stopping half of Denver’s talented duo. His season-high 16 assists in the regular season finale was a glimpse of how his playmaking has turned up at the right time. That court vision will be crucial for a team that will look to limit his offensive outbursts. James also led the NBA in fourth quarter scoring, and in a series with games that could go down to the wire, it’s imperative that James maintains crunch time consistency.

Likewise, Davis—who proved doubters wrong by playing 76 games this season—and his durability will be essential for this series. Davis has faced Jokic in the postseason nine times in his career, averaging 29.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. The 2023 Western Conference Finals saw AD average a double-double (26.8 PPG, 14 RPG) and erupt for 40 points in the series opener. This time around, AD will have to channel that energy from the jump and keep it there the rest of the way. The Lakers have asked a lot of Davis this season, and he has delivered every time. With a golden opportunity at hand, AD must exceed expectations against one of the best bigs in the league.

Crash the Glass

This season, the Lakers’ rebounding was all over the place. The team was 18th in rebounds per game (43.1) and dead last in offensive rebounds per game (8.2). However, they also finished second in defensive boards (34.9). AD led the NBA in second-chance points, adding to his importance in this series.

As a whole—and against a taller Nuggets team—the Lakers will need to focus on the boards against Denver. Denver out-rebounded the Lakers 175-153 in the conference finals, and they continued to do so in the season series, 139-114. The differences seem small at first glance, but they are critical in terms of generating extra possessions, which is partly why Denver has had the Lakers’ number for a while.

For the Lakers to improve their odds against the Nuggets, crashing the boards is vital, and this shouldn’t just fall on James and Davis. Rui Hachimura has shown he’s capable of double-double outings, so look for him to be aggressive on the glass. And despite the inconsistency, backup big Jaxson Hayes may also be putting his seven-foot frame and seven-foot-three wingspan to work near the basket. The Lakers can increase their chances at scoring—and limit Denver’s at the same time—if they constantly get to the boards.

Twos Over Threes

Aside from getting to the glass first, the Lakers will need to do most of their damage inside the arc as opposed to from outside of it. According to’s Michael Wright, the three ball won’t matter as much in this series:

The Nuggets were the only team that had a winning record (18-15) in games in which they were outscored from 3-point range this season. The Lakers, meanwhile, had the most wins (23-29) when being outscored from deep. Denver (35.2%) and L.A. (35.8%) ranked 30th and 28th, respectively in the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range, and those rates were even lower (32.9% and 31.0%) over the three regular-season meetings.

This isn’t to say that the Lakers should abandon the three ball completely, but rather prioritize getting quality looks from the paint and midrange spots. In LA’s three regular season matchups with the Nuggets, nearly 70% of their shots came from two-point range, and they knocked down 53% of those attempts (33 makes/61.7 attempts per game). Getting back to that formula in the postseason will be a key aspect of their offense.

It helps to have players like Davis, James and Hachimura, who are all skilled at getting to their spots in the paint. But it will be up to the rest of the Lakers to follow their lead and match Denver’s physicality inside. The Lakers’ interior presence may not be the deciding factor in winning games, but it would be a lot more helpful than hunting for threes on every possession.

The Guards Must Step Up

Finally, a key factor for the Lakers will be their guard rotation of D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Gabe Vincent and Spencer Dinwiddie.

Russell and Reaves had mixed results against Denver in the conference finals. Reaves played some of the best basketball of his career while Russell was nearly played off the floor. This season, they both performed well despite the results. Reaves put up 16 points (43.6% FG, 40% 3PT, 78.6% FT) and nine assists per game, while Russell averaged 14 points (40% FG, 33% 3PT, 80% FT) and five assists.

LA also now has Vincent and Dinwiddie, who have both proven themselves in the playoffs. Vincent’s stellar run last year included a matchup with the Nuggets in the Finals, where he averaged 11.4 points, 2.4 assists and one steal per game while helping keep Murray in check. Dinwiddie was a part of Dallas’s 2022 run to the Western Conference Finals, and has averaged 14.1 points and 3.6 assists across four postseasons.

Similar to LeBron and AD, D’Lo, Gabe, Spencer and Austin will need to bring their A-games against Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the rest of Denver’s guards. Given Reaves and Russell’s familiarity with Murray, they’ll have a better idea of how to keep him in check—or at least try to. Vincent, though he hasn’t faced the Nuggets since October, will be critical as a point-of-attack defender. His ability to consistently get stops will be necessary off the bench, as will his shooting, which has started to come back. And Dinwiddie, who is now in the same conference as Denver, must provide an offensive spark after adapting to a “defense-first” role.

The Lakers’ group of guards will need to work well alongside James and Davis to prevent a breakout from Denver’s backcourt.

The Last Word

The Lakers, as expected, are heavy underdogs against the defending champions. However, as LeBron, AD, Reaves and Darvin Ham have reiterated, the team is prepared to put up a fight in round one and did not even consider ducking them to face the Thunder. Each of these keys could be difference-makers in this important series, and time will tell how prepared the Lakers are when game one tips off Saturday. Given their recent success and newfound motivation, the purple and gold shouldn’t be counted out just yet.


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