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Lakers vs. Nuggets: Conference finals scouting report, prediction

SERIES SCHEDULE

(Best-of-seven, all times PT)

Game 1: Tuesday at Denver, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 2: Thursday at Denver, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 3: Saturday at L.A., 5:30 p.m. (Ch. 7)

Game 4: May 22 at L.A., 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

*Game 5: May 24 at Denver, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

*Game 6: May 26 at L.A., 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

*Game 7: May 28 at Denver, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN)

*If necessary

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Teams split regular-season series 2-2

Oct. 26: Nuggets, 110, Lakers 99 at Denver

Oct. 30: Lakers 121, Nuggets 110 at Crypto.com Arena

Dec. 16: Lakers 126, Nuggets 108 at Crypto.com Arena

Jan. 9: Nuggets 122, Lakers 109 at Denver

TALE OF THE TAPE

Nuggets (regular-season rank) category … Lakers (regular-season rank)

53-29 … Season record … 43-39

115.8 (12th) … PPG … 117.2 (6th)

112.5 (8th) … Opp. PPG … 116.6 (20th)

50.4 % (1st) … FG Pct. … 48.2 % (10th)

37.9 % (4th) … 3-point Pct. … 34.6% (25th)

75.1% (26th) … FT Pct. … 77.5% (20th)

43.0 (19th) … Rebounds … 45.7 (6th)

28.9 (2nd) … Assists … 25.3 (15th)

7.5 (11th) … Steals … 6.4 (26th)

4.5 (20th) … Blocked shots … 4.6 (16th)

14.5 (20th) … Turnovers … 14.1 (15th)

STARTING BACKCOURT

The seventh-seeded Lakers’ guards were said to be inferior to Ja Morant and Desmond Bane during their first round series against the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. They were said to be inferior to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson of the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the second round. D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves have given the Lakers the right kind of balance between offense and defense so far during the playoffs. They’ll be called upon again during the conference finals against the top-seeded Nuggets, especially to throw Jamal Murray off track. Russell and Reaves are averaging 15 points per game during the postseason. Murray is averaging 25.9 points plus 5.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists. He’s going to be a handful, just as the Memphis and Golden State guards were in the earlier rounds. Edge: Lakers.

STARTING FRONTCOURT

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is a monster by any measure. He averaged nearly a triple-double (30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, 9.7 assists) in their first two rounds of the playoffs. Defending him, keeping him from wreaking havoc, will be the key to the series for the Lakers. Michael Porter Jr. averaged 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists in the first two rounds for Denver. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were all but unstoppable at times during the Lakers’ first two rounds. James averaged 23.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists while proving he’s still got serious playoff energy in that 38-year-old body. Davis averaged 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 3.3 blocks in the opening two rounds. He leads the league in the playoffs in rebounds and blocks. Edge: Lakers, but only barely.

BENCHES

Both coaches tightened their rotations to eight players for the first two rounds, which is fairly typical with extra rest between games and no games on consecutive nights as during the regular season. Reserve guard Lonnie Walker IV’s fourth-quarter outburst in the Lakers’ victory over the Warriors in Game 4 of their series proved to be more than a one-off. He followed it up with 13 points in the Lakers’ series-clinching victory in Game 6. Lakers coach Darvin Ham shifted Dennis Schroder into the starting lineup for Game 6 against Golden State and moved Jarred Vanderbilt to a reserve role for the first time in the playoffs. Schroder proved to be a defensive pest. Edge: Lakers.

COACHES

Ham pushed all the right buttons, earning raves from Golden State coach Steve Kerr after the Lakers’ second-round series victory. The Lakers won the coaching chess match against a coach and a staff that had won four NBA championships in an eight-year span. Michael Malone has the Nuggets in the conference finals for the second time in three years, one step away from the franchise’s first trip to the Finals. He also has some significant firepower in the form of Jokic. Edge: Lakers.

INTANGIBLES

The Lakers and Nuggets have met seven times in the playoffs, including the 2020 conference finals in the pandemic bubble in Orlando, Florida. The Lakers have won all seven, including in five games in ’20. The Lakers are on a nine-game winning streak at home, including 6-0 in the playoffs. The Nuggets also are 6-0 at home during the playoffs, making the most of their mile-high altitude advantage in Denver. Edge: Even.

SERIES PREDICTION

As hard as it is to imagine anyone slowing down Jokic, it’s even harder to imagine anyone contending effectively with James and Davis. The Grizzlies couldn’t do it, too young and inexperienced in the big games to thwart two players who are healthy and at the top of their games. The Warriors couldn’t do it, either, despite all their playoff success. Can the Nuggets do it? Probably not  for an entire playoffs series. It’s just too great an ask. Lakers in six.

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