The Los Angeles Lakers relieved some of the pressure with their 131-113 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night, but a far bigger challenge awaits them at Staples Center on Thursday as the unbeaten Denver Nuggets come to town. Both teams missed the playoffs last season but the expectation is that both will make it this time. We took a look at some of the subplots that might swing the game.
Paul Millsap guarding LeBron James
Millsap is likeliest to draw the key assignment, given his size and his familiarity with guarding James from his Atlanta Hawks days. He should be able to hang with the Lakers superstar in the post but will have a tougher time if isolated in space. Millsap is a key cog in the Denver offense too so will need to be careful with foul trouble. James had 10 assists in Phoenix but look for him to aggressively seek out his own shot early on, knowing that the fatigue factor could surface later for the Lakers.
Kentavius Caldwell-Pope’s three-point stroke
For a team short on shooting (and defensive stoppers), Caldwell-Pope should be a real difference-maker. But after a slow start, he finds himself coming off the bench, with Josh Hart replacing him in the starting line-up. It is too early for the Lakers to give up on Caldwell-Pope, though. His 6-of-14 night in 33 minutes against the Suns was a step in the right direction.
The all-around threat of Nikola Jokic
This matchup is going to be tough for the Lakers. JaVale McGee will likely be the primary defender, but that is asking a lot. The Nuggets’ offense flows through Jokic and he is so crafty as a creator that double-teams tend to lead to wide open three-point attempts for Gary Harris or layups for Jamal Murray. All the signs point to another monster stat line for Jokic on Thursday as his MVP candidacy continues to take shape.
Filling the gap left by Will Barton’s injury
Nuggets head coach Mike Malone is having to re-jig his rotation after losing Barton to a hip/core injury that might keep him out for five weeks. For now, Torrey Craig is starting and others, including Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, are seeing more minutes. It will be interesting to see how the Denver offense is tweaked in the short-term, without Barton’s off-the-dribble spark.
Worth a bet?
The Nuggets are on a roll and had the advantage of resting on Wednesday night, while the short-handed Lakers are on the second night of a back-to-back set. Look for Denver to take care of business once again and extend their unbeaten start.