Sprinting distributive beast, Nikola Jokic was once again a brain-breaking player in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Owning the boards with his hyper-magnet hands, pushing the pace, working impossible passing angles in the high-post, looking like drunk Hakeem in the low post, stroking threes, and always being in the right place defensively, ready to use the best hands in the sport. His Denver Nuggets raced to a 18-point halftime lead over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Then, there was Anthony Davis and LeBron James. One of the best star pairings in the 21st century, we haven’t been able to recognize this often enough, due to both getting injured, and their 2020 title run happening during an odd, pandemic-inflected, zero-fan environment in October of all months, that year. James is 38 and Davis played just 76 games combined in the previous two seasons, but at the moment they are healthy and clicking again—and their collision course with the best player alive is before us.
In Game 1, they figured out how to come back against what’s been the best team in the playoffs, nearly pulling off an upset in the fearsome Colorado Altitude; after a riveting comeback, the Nuggets eked by with a six-point victory. Davis strayed from the 1-on-1 matchup against the two-time MVP, which dizzied him and took him out of his prime defensive role as a roaming disruptive terror. James called for endless screens from Dennis Schroeder, getting him a tasty switch from Aaron Gordon to Jamal Murray as his defender, and ate the smaller player up in the post.
The Nuggets never countered these adjustments, and will need to in the next contest to reclaim the edge they began the series with. Despite being up 1-0, it feels very much that they are the team in the position of urgency, with these potent maneuvers to address and their home court advantage to defend. Some of what they need to do is easier than it sounds. Not letting Murray and Gordon execute said deadly switch, for instance, begs an important follow-up question about what kind of floor time Gordon will have in the series going forward.
While he’s Denver’s best defensive option on James, by far, Gordon’s unreliable shooting from deep is what allowed Davis to lurk near the paint while ignoring him in the corner. Which, in turn, gums up Jokic’s game; while he’s certainly capable of scoring on his new defender, Rui Hachimura, in a perimeter and midrange-oriented way, his primal instinct as a player—and this is important to why he’s the best one there is, at the moment—is to get past or bury his defender; either way, he’s getting to the hoop. Not when Davis is waiting there, though. While Jokic has him solved as a primary defender, as a poised helper at the rim? No one has the solution for Anthony Davis there.
The obvious solution, one might say, is to play Bruce Brown in Gordon’s spot with the starting lineup, to increase spacing and dare Davis to ignore the arc. No one is around to competently guard James in this scenario, however. How the Nuggets go about this conundrum is just one of the many strategic wonders in a series bound to be rich with them. The Nuggets have been the best team in the West since the start, but it’s easy to argue that the Lakers hold that title since the trade deadline, when they shuffled their supporting cast to reinforce what makes James and Davis such a nightmarish combo. They are huge, skilled, tenacious, hyper-intelligent, unflappable, and ready.
So is Jokic, and his team. Despite Murray’s struggles with the undoable task of dealing with James on defense, he scored 31 points to complement Jokic’s 34-point, 21-rebound triple-double (he needed every bit of it against Davis’ 40 point, 10 rebound effort). Ex-Laker, and 2020 champion, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope blazed from three for Denver, while Austin Reaves did for the Lakers. In a game that looked destined to end early, all of it ended up combining for a high-stress affair that set the stage for what could very well be a classic heavyweight series.
You have to ignore a lot to consider it a total rematch of the 2020 series, but that Orlando bubble is precedent enough to add extra weight to an already loaded battle. Denver was one of the youngest teams in the league then, but are now at their competitive zenith—and having had two years of it stolen away by injuries, their determination to win a championship appears to be existential. And while the Lakers have already won theirs, they’ve lost just as much opportunity to their ailments, and it’s entirely possible that James and Davis may not have this chance together again. After two painfully purgatorial seasons, the Lakers’ and Nuggets’ number came up at the same time; but only one of them can claim it.