A wall of video cameras surrounded Nikola Jokic as reporters huddled around the two-time MVP after the Nuggets wrapped up their final practice session before Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
All eyes were on him. And for Lakers coach Darvin Ham, that’s a problem. Because if everyone could just turn off the cameras and turn around for a moment, the Lakers and their head coach could go ahead with their plan to stop one of the NBA’s best players.
“Try to catch him leaving his house and kidnap him,” Ham said jokingly.
Jokic will certainly avoid Ham’s catches ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday, but that plan could be as good as any against a player who has been dominant all postseason. He averages 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists, the rare offensive power that can dominate a game as a goalscorer and passer.
“We must mix up the pitches. [Anthony Davis] will come at him,” said Ham. “We have a few different people who are going to take action against him. Just try to do your best every time. But again, try to do whatever it takes to get our job done early and throw him off balance.”
In the opening round, the Lakers defense had to deal with Memphis All-Star guard Ja Morant. In the second round, it was Golden State All-Star Guard Stephen Curry. Ham and his coaches were able to come up with working game plans – which didn’t prevent a kidnapping – and often worked.
Both series wins followed the same path: a Game 1 win to take control, followed by wins in the Lakers’ three games in Los Angeles.
Their Game 1 success has been a key part of this postseason so far, especially with the Lakers operating as No. 7s.
“All I can think of is the hunger, the excitement of starting a new journey, and the knowledge that we’re going to have almost no home field advantage in the playoffs at all,” Ham said of the Lakers’ playoff fortunes. “So I’m just trying to keep an advantage for us by flipping the narrative and the circumstances. So getting in and attacking Game 1 is definitely high on our priority list.”
Add to that some rest—the rest they earned through six-game wins against Memphis and Golden State and their first breakout in the play-in tournament.
“I don’t even want to think about whether we should have played the seventh game yesterday in San Francisco,” said Ham.
Instead, his team was able to travel to Denver on Sunday for practice at the ball arena on Monday while the Lakers adjust to the mile-high altitude.
“Yes, it’s real,” LeBron James said when asked about it. “…You get tired a lot quicker than if you weren’t there.”
The Lakers and Nuggets met in the 2020 West Finals, and while the rosters are wildly different, the stars – James and Davis, Jokic and All-Star Guard Jamal Murray – are the same.
“You’re better,” James said. “But they were great then and they are great now. I think jokers [Jokic] has two more years under his belt. And Jamal has returned to his usual form after the injury. And the rest of these guys played exceptional basketball. They’re a really, really, really, really, really good team.”
The changes just aren’t from 2020.
The last time the Lakers played Denver this season was on January 9th. They started with Dennis Schroder, Thomas Bryant, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Max Christie and Patrick Beverley. Three other players not in the Lakers roster also played minutes in the game, which the Lakers lost.
The teams shared the season series 2-2, with both teams winning their home games.
While the Lakers went through their midseason makeover, Denver was consistently great and drama-free in the west, except for a brief lull late in the season when his spot at the top of the west was secured.
The focus is on Jokic, the biggest test the Lakers will face over the next two weeks.
“You’re not going to speed it up. You won’t stop him. “You just have to make sure you’re present with him at all times,” Ham said. “There will be times when you won’t hit a shutout on him. There will be times when you have to stand up to your passing and scoring.
“But you’re just trying to put him in a position as much as possible where there’s indecisiveness and throwing him a little bit off balance — if possible.”
That may not be the case on Tuesday, but so far the Lakers have always found a way this postseason.