The Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets meet for the first time since last season’s Western Conference Finals on Thursday.
A 4-1 series win for the Lakers paved the way for the franchise to win their first NBA championship since 2010 and they are the favourites to repeat the feat this season.
After a gruelling two-week road trip in which they went 5-2, they will be back in the familiar surroundings of Staples Center to start a five-game home stand.
The Lakers are 4-4 on their home court this season and the Nuggets have only dropped three of their 10 road games, while LeBron James and Nikola Jokic have started the campaign in form befitting MVP candidates.
The stage is set for an intriguing battle between two of the West’s heavyweights.
LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
In-House Competition ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/u9raTHsCAN
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) February 4, 2021
An average of 25 points per game may not be on a par with previous prolific seasons, but James is enjoying a career year from beyond the arc.
He is shooting at 40.9 per cent from three-point range and is averaging over twice as many attempts per game (6.8 compared to 3.3) as when he set his previous high of 40.6 per cent in the 2012-13 season.
He has improved from downtown year on year with the Lakers but operates at 27.1 per cent from three against the Nuggets since his arrival in Los Angeles in 2018. He only made more than one three-pointer in one of their Western Conference Finals meetings last season.
Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets
Denver’s Serbian center has made an incredible start to the 2020-21 season.
While tying his career high of 47 points and ending the Utah Jazz’s 11-game winning streak, he registered his 20th straight double-double to start the season – Bill Walton is the only other player to have achieved that feat, though he went on to record 34 straight in the 1976-77 season.
The last team to deny him a double-double? That’s right, it was the Lakers. Jokic only had one double-double in the Nuggets’ 4-1 series loss to the Lakers in the bubble.
KEY BATTLE: CONTROL OF THE PAINT
Only Zion Williamson (173), Giannis Antetokounmpo (165) and Domantas Sabonis (157) have made more field goals in the paint than Jokic this season, with the centre averaging 14.8 points per game in the key.
However, for the Lakers, Anthony Davis and LeBron have each made 111 field goals in the paint, while Montrezl Harrell also places inside the top 20 with 107.
Through Davis and James alone the Lakers average 21.8 points per game in the paint and the former shoots at 69.8 per cent in that area – better than Jokic’s 65.2 success rate and the fifth best in the NBA among players to have attempted at least 100 such shots.
"The speed is there. I don't know, can he jump as high as me?"
Nikola was asked what similarities he sees between him and LeBron James 😂😂 pic.twitter.com/cDmSdaWiiO
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 3, 2021
HEAD TO HEAD
The Nuggets have only won four of their 12 meetings with the Lakers in the regular season and playoffs since LeBron arrived at Staples Center.
Davis has particularly enjoyed playing against Denver since becoming a Laker too, averaging 30.3 points and 7.6 assists across nine meetings with the Nuggets. The only side he has averaged more points against in the same time frame – with a minimum of two games played – is his former team the New Orleans Pelicans (31.3).
Denver will therefore likely need Jamal Murray to shine alongside Jokic. However, he had one of his worst games over the past two seasons against the Lakers December 2019, when he had just six points on 3-of-17 shooting. Only once has he scored fewer in at least 24 minutes on the floor – he had four points against the Brooklyn Nets a month prior.