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It's Game 1 Of The Western Conference Finals Between The Lakers And The Nuggets Tonight. Here's What To Watch For

A basketball player with dark skin tone and wearing a purple uniform rises up for a shot against a larger player with light skin tone and wearing a white uniform.
LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers takes a shot against Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets in the second half at Arena on Dec. 16, 2022 in Los Angeles.
(Ronald Martinez
Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles Lakers meet the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Ball Arena in the Mile High City tonight. It's a rematch of 2020, when the Lakers went through the Nuggets en route to the NBA Finals and a championship.

How the Lakers got here

The Lakers are playing in the postseason with a little bit of magic after entering as a seventh seed — second to last in the playoffs — and starting the season 2-10. They decisively beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round, then upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semis.

Both the Grizzlies and Warriors featured All-Star guards in Ja Morant and Stephen Curry, respectively, but the Lakers — similar to their 2020 championship formula — prevailed with the help of a deep bench and stingy defense, which has been the NBA's best since the All-Star break.

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What they're facing

Standing in the way is two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokić, aka "The Joker," who leads the top-seeded Nuggets and seems to have leveled up since the 2020 matchup.

Jokić is one of the greatest passing big men in NBA history, but he can also stretch the floor with shooting and score with power near the rim. The Nuggets center has averaged 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists throughout the postseason.

The Lakers will also have to content with dangerous point guard Jamal Murray, who is averaging 25.9 points, shooting nearly 40% from three-point range and has incredible on-court chemistry with Jokić. Denver presents a much different challenge to defend than the guard-centric perimeter offenses the Lakers have faced thus far in the playoffs.

The Lakers' keys to victory

Lakers first-year head coach Darvin Ham has done a great job guiding his team throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs after a shaky start to the season. One key to victory is how the Lakers decide to handle Jokić — do they plan to stop him, or do they focus more on minimizing the impact of his teammates?

Anthony Davis is an all-world defender and one of the few people with a shot at mitigating Denver's Serbian star. How the Lakers deploy AD could be a major factor in determining the series.

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How to watch
  • Game time: 5:30 p.m.
    Network: ESPN or ESPN+

Another key? Ham will also have to keep finding success through the supporting cast around LeBron James and Davis: D'Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, Dennis Schröder and Lonnie Walker IV. The Nuggets counter with a deep lineup of their own featuring players like Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (ex-Laker), rookie Christian Braun and "Uncle" Jeff Green.

Bonus energy

On Friday, I talked to Lakers fans outside of Arena before Game 6 of the semifinals. One fan, Forever Flowin' Flexus Fresh of the World Famous L.A. Breakers, a local breakdancing group, was burning sage out front.

"It's just so we have good energy, you know," he said. "They're either going to win or they're going to win ... there's no losing, it's just lessons learned, right?"

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