Denver Nuggets focused on vanquishing LeBron James and Lakers, not ghosts of the past
DENVER (AP) — If the Denver Nuggets can continue their dominance at Ball Arena, they'll not only conquer LeBron James and Anthony Davis but they'll also vanquish the ghosts of their horrendous playoff performances against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Nuggets have lost all seven playoff series against the Lakers in their history, including inside the NBA bubble in 2020.
They meet for the fourth time in the Western Conference finals beginning Tuesday night in Denver. The Nuggets are an NBA-best 40-7 at home and have won all six of their playoff games at Ball Arena.
“Maybe one of the best home environments we have in the league,” Lakers first-year coach Darvin Ham said. "Their crowd is going to be on the edge of their seats, standing, stomping, screaming.”
After a spirited practice Monday, Nuggets coach Michael Malone didn't want to talk about Denver's dismal 8-25 record against the Lakers in the playoffs. The Lakers have gone on to win an NBA championship each time they've beaten the Nuggets in the finals of the Western Conference — in 2020, 2009 and 1985 — and two other times when they beat Denver in earlier rounds.
“Getting to the NBA Finals is all that matters,” Malone said. “The fact that it's the Lakers makes it probably that much more special for a lot of people that support us and if that's going to allow Ball Arena to be that much more excited and crazy, then I'm all for it.”
Although both teams love to push the pace, that could be a tad harder for the Lakers, who aren't as accustomed to playing at altitude. Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic, however, dismisses Denver's thin air as a factor in the team's success.
“We think it’s us,” Jokic said. “We don't think it's the altitude."
Either way, Jokic noted the Lakers snatched the homecourt advantage by winning Game 1s at Memphis and Golden State in the first two rounds of the playoffs. “So, hopefully they’re not going to win it here,” Jokic said.
If there are any takeaways from their last playoff meeting that would help the Nuggets this time around, Jokic isn’t broadcasting them.
“To be honest, nothing,” he said. “I don’t remember it.”
James remembers it well, and he sees a more formidable foe this time with Jamal Murray and Jokic quickly cementing their status as the league's best pick-and-roll duo now that Murray has returned from a right ACL tear in 2021.
“They’re better, but they were great then, and they’re great now,” James said. “Joker has gotten two more years under his belt. Jamal has gotten back to his regular form after the injury. And the rest of those guys are playing on exceptional basketball. They’re really really, really, really good team.
“Every game, every postseason, every matchup allows you to continue to grow as a franchise, as a team, and they’ve done that," James said. "So, we come in with the utmost respect for this team.”
James said he also has great admiration for Malone, who was an assistant during his first five NBA seasons in Cleveland.
“He was part of my growth,” James said. “It’s always great to see old friends and see guys that have been a part of my journey have success.”
Malone said he's blessed to have coached both James and Jokic, who share many similarities including work ethic and unselfishness.
“You take away the athleticism, you know, which is a striking difference. But their IQ, their feel for the game, seeing things before they happen, their ability to make everyone around them better” is nearly identical, suggested Malone. "And just their personalities. They're just very, very, very similar players.
“And it’s funny because it shows you there’s a lot of different ways to be great.”
Ham had the perfect strategy for containing Jokic, the two-time NBA MVP who’s nearly averaging a triple-double through two rounds of the playoffs.
“Try to catch him coming out of his house and kidnap him,” Ham joked.
In all seriousness, the Lakers plan to start Davis on him and rotate in a few others.
The Lakers have been to the line a whopping 290 times in theses playoffs, shooting 95 more free throws than their opponents. Jokic said the Nuggets aren't worried about staying out of foul trouble, however.
“We're still going to be aggressive,” Jokic said. “We’re going to probably play the same way like how we played the last two rounds. It’s going to be a physical game like every other game.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed.
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Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press