DENVER — Lakers coach Darvin Ham offered a novel solution to the problem that is Nikola Jokic, although the Federal Bureau of Investigation might have a thing or two to say about his plan to subdue the Denver Nuggets’ leading scorer, rebounder and playmaker in the Western Conference finals.
“Try to catch him coming out of his house and kidnap him,” Ham said Monday.
Ham was joking on the eve of Game 1, of course.
No need to dial 9-1-1.
The Minnesota Timberwolves failed to stop Jokic in the first round.
The Phoenix Suns failed to stop him in the second.
Now, it’s the Lakers’ turn to try to stop the two-time league MVP.
Can it be done?
Ham’s initial plan will be to have Anthony Davis guard him, which could force Nuggets coach Michael Malone to have Jokic check Davis, which has proved to be no easy task, either. Jokic is averaging 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists in the playoffs. Davis is averaging 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.3 blocked shots, and he leads the league in rebounds and blocks.
“I mean, obviously, everyone knows how great he is,” Ham said of Jokic. “We’re going to have to mix up pitches. A.D. will start on him. We have a few different guys that will see action against him. Just try to put your best foot forward every time out. But again, try to do everything we can to do our work early and keep him off-balance.”
The Lakers split the four regular-season games against the Nuggets, with each team winning on its home floor. However, each of the four games was played before the Lakers overhauled their roster ahead of the NBA trade deadline on Feb. 9. But neither team is the same as it was earlier in the season.
The Lakers defeated the Nuggets in their last playoff matchup, in the 2020 conference finals in the NBA’s pandemic bubble in Orlando, Florida, gaining the upper hand against Jokic in large part because Dwight Howard played aggressively against him and took him out of his game physically and maybe mentally, too.
Howard is playing in Taiwan and is unavailable for a repeat performance.
Ham has other options, though.
“You’re not going to speed him up,” Ham said of getting Jokic out of his comfort zone. “You’re not going to slow him down. You just have to make sure you have a presence on him at all times. There’s going to be times where you’re not going to pitch a shutout against him. There’s going to be times where you have to withstand his passing, withstand his scoring. But you just try as much as possible to put him in a position where it creates indecision and gets him to be off balance a little bit when possible.”
So, a reporter jokingly wondered, do you deploy a bunch of hackers on him?
“Physical,” Ham said. “I wouldn’t call it hacking. I would call it physical.”
There are other matchups to watch as the Lakers try to go 8-0 all-time in playoff series against the Nuggets. LeBron James will likely be a handful for the Nuggets as will Denver’s Jamal Murray for the Lakers. James stressed that this Nuggets team is different from the one they faced three years ago.
“They’re better,” James said of the Nuggets, “but they were great then and they’re great now. I think ‘Joker’ has gotten two more years under his belt and Jamal has gotten back to his regular form after the (knee) injury, and the rest of those guys have been playing exceptional basketball.
“They’re a really, really, really, really, really good team.”
James really did say really five times.
Ham wouldn’t say if he would tweak his starting lineup for Game 1 against the Nuggets on Tuesday, as he did for what proved to be the second-round clincher in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors on Friday at Crypto.com Arena. Ham started veteran guard Dennis Schroder instead of forward Jarred Vanderbilt in Game 6.
No matter who starts or doesn’t start, Ham said nothing has changed about the Lakers since their victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Or maybe even during the days, weeks and months going into the postseason, when their determination to advance was so evident to him.
The Lakers have won Game 1 in each of the first two rounds, both on the road.
“I just think the hunger, the excitement to get started with a new journey and us knowing we pretty much won’t have home-court advantage at all in the playoffs,” Ham said. “So, just trying to keep some type of advantage for us, kind of flip that narrative and flip that circumstance. So, coming in and attacking Game 1 is definitely at the top of our priority list.”
Lakers big man Mo Bamba remained in Los Angeles to have his injured ankle re-examined and isn’t expected to rejoin the team until after Game 1 begins Tuesday.
The Lakers’ series-clinching Game 6 win against the Warriors was the most-watched second-round NBA playoff game in 12 years (since 2011), according to the Nielsen Ratings.
The ESPN broadcast delivered an average of 8,640,000 viewers, peaking with 9,295,000 viewers at 8 p.m. PT. It was up 38% from last year’s comparable game – Warriors vs. Grizzlies.
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Lakers guard Austin Reaves, left, blocks a shot by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic as Lakers forward LeBron James looks on during their Dec. 16, 2022 game at Crypto.com Arena. The Lakers will try do everything they can to try to limit the two-time league MVP during the Western Conference finals beginning Tuesday night in Denver. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)