Anthony Davis smiled and looked over at LeBron James sitting next to him at the podium, the two Lakers stars and leaders admitting they had already given some thoughts about playing the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals.
The Lakers had just dispatched the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors by winning the best-of-seven semifinal series 4-2 with a 122-101 victory Friday night and there was joy inside L.A.’s locker room and universe at Crypto.com Arena.
Sure, it was time for the Lakers to rejoice, to reset with three days off before they meet the Nuggets in Game 1 on Tuesday night in Denver, to recalibrate after having dealt with Golden State’s dangerous trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
The preparation never stops for Davis and James, and so they thought back to 2020, when the Lakers defeated the Nuggets in five games in the Western Conference finals in the bubble on the Walt Disney World sports campus near Orlando, Fla.
Here the Lakers and Nuggets are again, set to meet again with a chance to reach the NBA Finals on the line.
“It’s funny, but me and Bron talked about it earlier, about going back and watching that series to kinda see what we did to kinda figure out how we can best match up and get victories over them,” Davis said late Friday night after posting a double-double of 17 points and 20 rebounds. “So, we’ll go back and look at it. I think the biggest key will be making the ball find the guys we want it to find, just play off of that.”
The Lakers and Nuggets split the 2022-23 regular-season series 2-2, with each team winning their games at home.
The games were played before the Lakers made the trades that have put them in this position, with the acquisitions of Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley.
Ironically, the Lakers’ first win of the season was a 121-110 defeat of the Nuggets, which broke a five-game losing streak to begin the season.
While the Lakers were trying to find their footing, the Nuggets were rolling along. They posted the best record in the Western Conference at 53-29.
They have one of the best players in the NBA in two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. With his running mate, guard Jamal Murray, the Nuggets have a lethal pick-and-roll tandem.
“They’ve been the No. 1 team in the West for a reason,” said James, who scored 30 points on an efficient 10-for-14 shooting with nine rebounds and nine assists Friday. “They’ve played exceptional basketball all year. And we’re going in with the utmost respect for their ballclub. They’re very well coached and obviously we know the dynamic of what Joker [Jokic] brings to the game and also Jamal Murray, being back fully healthy. And the rest of those guys.
“So, tomorrow is a day for us to kind of get away from the game a little bit. Just kind of chill with our families and kind of recoup a little bit. But Sunday and Monday and then part of Tuesday before the game starts, we will lock in on what we need to do to try to be at our best versus a very good — a very, very good — and well-coached team. But I look forward to it when it gets here.”
In four games against the Lakers this season, Jokic averaged 23.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists and 2.3 steals. In his three games against the Nuggets, Davis averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds.
In the six-game series against the Phoenix Suns, a series Denver won 4-2, Jokic was a beast. He averaged a triple-double of 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham wanted to enjoy his team’s victory over the Warriors and wait to talk about game-planning for Jokic.
“If you’re around on Sunday, I will let you know. You’re not going to push the fast-forward button on me that fast,” Ham said, smiling. “We already know that monster in the Rocky Mountains that’s waiting on us.”
Ham knows Jokic is going to be a tall task for his group.
But he’ll have the Lakers ready for the challenge.
“You’re talking about a two-time MVP, with a well-balanced squad, hungry, great synergy, great chemistry, great ability, athleticism, shooting, all of the above,” Ham said. “So, we’re going to have our work cut out for us, but they gotta guard us too, so we’re going to do our due diligence as we always do and be prepared for Game 1, but right now, we’re going to soak all of this in and try to enjoy this tonight, fill our cups back up tomorrow and be ready to go back to work on Sunday.”
Davis recalled perhaps the biggest moment of his career against the Nuggets in the 2020 playoffs.
There were two seconds left and the Lakers were down by one point in Game 2 of that Western Conference finals series. Davis curled to the corner and took the inbounds pass from Rajon Rondo.
Davis pulled up and drilled a three-pointer for the win, giving the Lakers a 2-0 lead in the series that they won in five.
Davis yelled “Kobe” after the ball settled into the net, for what became known as the “Mamba shot” in honor of the legendary Kobe Bryant.
On Friday night, Davis was asked about it.
“That was one game, though,” he said. “But s— . I mean, damn. … Hope they don’t fine me. Hopefully I get another one this series.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.