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Lakers ready to adjust lineup to counter Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic

Lakers forward Anthony Davis defends Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during a game Dec. 22, 2019, at Staples Center.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis defends Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during a game this season at Staples Center.
(Luis Sinco / Associated Press)

LeBron James knows a thing or two about clawing back from a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series, having done it in the 2016 NBA Finals. So when he saw the Denver Nuggets do that not once, but twice, while inside the bubble, he had an idea of what it took.

“Very resilient, very confident, very driven, very well-coached team,” James said. “It takes a lot of energy, effort, a lot of desperation to be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit. They did it twice. So the respect level is out of this world for what we have for this ballclub. That’s how we’re going into this series, understanding what they’re capable of, where they stand.”

On Friday the Lakers will begin their Western Conference finals series against a Nuggets team that has been thoughtof as an underdog for much of the playoffs, despite entering the postseason as the No. 3 seed. They needed comeback efforts in their first-round series against the Utah Jazz and their second-round series against the Clippers. Those teams fell victim to something the Lakers will seek to counteract — the unique challenges posed by talented center Nikola Jokic.

“We’ve been great at adjusting and making sure we’re prepared for each opponent; I’m sure it’s going to be pretty much the same here,” Lakers All-NBA forward Anthony Davis said. “They’ve given us a lot of breakdowns on their personnel, their team, to put us in the best situation to win.

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“But we’re able to adjust to any style of play, whether it’s small like Houston or big like Denver. We’ll be ready.”

Although the Lakers used a different lineup in their previous round to match the Houston Rockets’ quickness, they traditionally have a very tall, broad team with long arms. Their length was a strength all season, with a starting lineup that played the 6-foot-10 Davis at power forward and 7-foot JaVale McGee at center, plus they have 6-10 backup Dwight Howard.

Guard Jamal Murray has helped Denver reach its first Western Conference finals since 2009 with his scoring, playmaking and leadership.

“How can we take away the 57 points in the paint they averaged against us in the regular season?” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “Not allowing their bigs to get behind us. They get it from spin-out lobs in the post, get it from transition. They get it from Dwight and JaVale just being around the basket.

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“When they beat you on the initial drive and you step up to help, there’s that lob right at the rim. That’s where you have to have bodies syncing and filling behind and hitting them. We can’t make this a jumping contest because they have the advantage in that area, no doubt.”

There’s perhaps some irony in the fact that the Lakers played notably well against Jokic during the regular season when Davis played center. Davis typically plays center in their smaller lineups — the kind of group they used to defeat the Rockets in Orlando, Fla.

The Lakers barely used their centers in the second round against the Rockets. Lakers coach Frank Vogel said McGee and Howard will be a bigger part of this series.

“In terms of how much we’ll use our centers, I don’t want to get too much into detail, but obviously we’re gonna be the L.A. Lakers, who we’ve been all year,” Vogel said. “We adjusted to a small-ball team last series, but I would expect us to return to form.”

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Jokic proved to be difficult for the Clippers to contain as they saw their 3-1 lead slip away. In Denver’s wins against the Clippers, Jokic averaged 17 rebounds a game. In their blowout win in Game 7, Jokic notched a triple-double with 16 points, 13 assists and 22 rebounds.

Malone expects the Lakers to try to send his team a message in Game 1. The Nuggets are again in a position where they will have to recover some balance after an emotional Game 7 win.

“We actually did petition the league to see if we could just get right to it and start 3-1 down, save everybody a lot of time, catch up to the Eastern Conference,” Malone quipped. “But that was shot down.”

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Ganguli reported from Los Angeles.


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