Lakers keep their guard up, taking upset-minded Nuggets with caution

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — On the day the All-NBA teams were released, it was striking how few are left in the bubble.

Likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and former MVP James Harden were knocked out in the second round; fellow first-teamer Luka Doncic was gone in the first. Second-team point guards Damian Lillard and Chris Paul couldn’t get first-round wins; Pascal Siakam’s title defense fell short; as did Kawhi Leonard’s quest for a second straight.

On the All-NBA first team, the elite of the elite, only two remain: LeBron James, a unanimous selection, and his teammate Anthony Davis. They’re facing the sole survivor on the second team, Nikola Jokic, on Friday.

In fact, the Lakers have a dramatic experience advantage over the three other remaining teams in the field. They have six players who have won titles, including James who is the all-time leader in playoff minutes. Only the Miami Heat have other players who have won a championship: Andre Iguodala, who was a foundational member of the Golden State Warriors, and Udonis Haslem, who won two of his rings with James.

The surprising dissolution of the Clippers’ campaign would seemingly give the Lakers the nod as the title favorite. But Coach Frank Vogel, cautious as ever entering the Western Conference Finals, said he and the Lakers don’t see things that way.

“My sense is our guys, and I know our coaching staff feels this way, believe that any one of these three teams remaining can beat us, and the Denver Nuggets are a terrific basketball team,” he said. “So are the Boston Celtics, so are the Miami Heat. So while we have players that have been there, we’ve not been there as a group yet. So we’re still super hungry to get the job done, recognizing and respecting the opponents that are still remaining.”

The Nuggets have already proven it’s a mistake to doubt them. In NBA history, there’s only been 13 instances when a team has come back from a 3-1 lead: 12 and 13 have been this Denver squad, which became the first NBA team to come back twice in a season. 

Much of the NBA was surprised when the Clippers, one of the longtime title favorites, were vanquished on Tuesday in a Game 7 blowout. While the Lakers had begun preparing more for the Clippers than the Nuggets when Denver was one game from elimination, they corrected the balance as the series went on.

Kyle Kuzma said if anything, the improbability of Denver’s storm back to win their second round series left the Lakers impressed.

“They just have a lot of fight,” he said. “They don’t really quit. They always try to play to win no matter if they’re down 19, which they were in Game 5 and 6, still coming back and winning. So it kind of just tells you the story of what kind of heart that team has.”

The team’s two stars have propelled them this far. Jamal Murray is the latest knockdown scorer the Lakers will try to quiet, averaging 27.1 points, 6.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting an unbelievable 49 percent from 3-point range.

Jokic, however, might be the trickier matchup. Shooting 44 percent on his own 3-pointers, the 7-foot Serbian also has a reputation as one of the game’s craftiest passers. While the Lakers anticipate that they’ll be able to put JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard back in the lineup against Denver’s size, they’ll be challenged to defend the perimeter as well as the inside.

“He can hurt you at the 3-point line, in the pocket, playing the 4-on-3 game in the post, and obviously with his passing,” Vogel said. “They understand his abilities up there passing the basketball and do a great job speed cutting through the lane. They make it very difficult to guard.”

The Lakers, of course, hope their experience and talent plays a role. For James, it was his 16th All-NBA team berth, the 13th placement on the first team. For Davis, it was the fourth time he’s been on the first team. It has been more than a decade since two All-NBA first-teamers came from the same roster: Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudamire in 2007.

The last time two Lakers made it: Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2004.

“Our coaching staff has set a high bar for accountability and care factor of every possession,” Vogel said, “but Anthony and LeBron have taken that lead from us and really set that tone in practices and film sessions and everything that we’re doing away from the court to make sure we’re at our best come game time. If your coaching staff is raising the bar with accountability and your player leadership is strong, you’re going to have a sense of urgency each time you take the court.”