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NBA Finals Contenders Take Different Tone in Playoff Rematch

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, NBA Finals MVPs now facing off in a playoff rematch

Last summer, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets didn’t like each other very much. At least that’s how it appeared.

It was surprising, considering that Nuggets head coach Michael Malone’s late father Brendan briefly coached LeBron James during his second season. Indeed, Malone himself was an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2005-06 to 2009-10. However, he had a lot to say about the four-time MVP after their intense Western Conference Finals matchup ended with LeBron’s Lakers losing in a sweep.

Lakers, Nuggets Take Different Tone in Playoff Rematch

Some of the comments seemed like mere bragging rights, like Malone being branded as the “Lakers Daddy” during their championship parade. It must be noted that Malone didn’t come up with the moniker, though he certainly didn’t complain. But after the championship parade, Malone threw shots at James himself, poking fun at the revelation the then 38-year-old was thinking about retirement.

The jab bothered James so much that he took to Instagram in response, posting a caption that said in part, “Wave the flag on these lames!! Please make being player cool again cause the lame machine is at an all-time high.”

In a vacuum, these incidents are innocuous.

Yet, knowing Malone was miffed by the media attention the Lakers get, it also sounded a bit like envy. That’s how the matchup with James and the Lakers became such a hot-blooded affair in the first place.

Indeed, tempers flared to the point where even last October, James was asked about his message to Malone ahead if the 2023-24 season.

“There will be a time when everybody will get it,” James said, per FOX Sports’ Melissa Rohlin.

Fast forward a few months later and the temperature has cooled.

No Bulletin Board Material

As luck would have it, or perhaps fate, the Lakers have drawn the Nuggets in the First Round of the Western Conference Playoffs. With Game 1 scheduled for Saturday, Apr. 20, fireworks are sure to fly as the two square off once again. However, while fans may be in a frenzy, neither James nor Malone is giving their opponent bulletin board material.

For his part, James continued to proclaim the greatness of two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic.

One of the best players in the game, Jokic is imaginative and yet technically sound offensive creator. Averaging 26.4 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game in the regular season, he may just win third MVP award in four years.

“He’s one of the best players to ever play this game,” James says of Jokic. “It’s that simple.”

“He does everything,” James exclaims. “He does everything.”

“The most important thing is he changes the way his teammates think about their own play. When you’re able to inspire your teammates to play at a level that sometimes they don’t even feel like they can play at, that’s a true testament of a great one.”

“When you have the ability to score at will,” James says (h/t The Athletic’s Jovan Buha), “it makes your passing even more dynamic… Guys like Luka (Doncic), Magic (Johnson) in his prime, Joker, myself, if you try to take away our passing, we can still be effective. That’s what makes us so dynamic.”

Malone had effusive praise for James, saying, “It’s year 21, and the guy is getting better… Not just his body of work but what he’s doing in present-day is incredible.”

“I hope he gets tired,” Malone says, taking a different tone than the last time he alluded to James’ eventual retirement. “I hope he wears down. But I’ve seen no signs of LeBron James slowing down by any means.

“I think it’s going to be another hell of a challenge for our group,” Malone says of the impending matchup.

Lakers or Nuggets?

This time around, the Lakers have had more time to gel. Consequently, the same continuity that’s allowed the Nuggets to overcome talent mismatches could lend itself to L.A.’s success.

However, the Lakers must still find a way to slow down Jokic and pick-and-roll partner Jamal Murray. To that point, unless James will be guarding Jokic, his supporting cast will have to shift the series in their favor. The same holds true for the offensive end, as the Nuggets have several long or athletic defenders to throw at James. The best NBA bet in this series would be to take the Nuggets.


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