A wall of video cameras surrounded Nikola Jokic as reporters piled around the two-time MVP after the Nuggets finished their final practice 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 quick second, the Lakers and their head coach can execute their game plan for stopping one of the NBA’s best players.
“Try to catch him coming out of his house and kidnap him,” Ham said jokingly.
Jokic will certainly avoid Ham’s clutches ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday, but that plan might be as good as any against a player who has been dominant all postseason. He’s averaged 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists, the rare kind of offensive force who can dominate a game as a scorer and a passer.
“We’re gonna have to mix up pitches. [Anthony Davis] will start on him,” Ham said. “We have a few different guys that will see action against him. Just try to put your best foot forward every time out. But again, try to do everything we can to do our work early and keep 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 devise game plans that worked — that didn’t avoid kidnapping — and worked often.
Both series wins followed the same path, a win in Game 1 to take control followed by wins in the Lakers’ three games in Los Angeles.
Their success in Game 1 has been a massive component so far this postseason, especially as the Lakers have operated as a No. 7 seed.
“I just think the hunger, the excitement to get started with a new journey and us knowing we pretty much won’t have home-court advantage at all in the playoffs,” Ham said of the Lakers’ playoff fate. “So, just trying to keep some type of advantage for us, kind of flip that narrative and flip that circumstance. So, coming in and attacking Game 1 is definitely at the top of our priority list.”
It’s also come with added rest — the rest earned by wins in six games against Memphis and Golden State and in their first crack in the play-in tournament.
“I don’t even want to think about if we would have had to go play that Game 7 in San Francisco yesterday,” Ham said.
Instead, his team was able to get to Denver on Sunday to practice at Ball Arena on Monday as the Lakers acclimate to the mile-high altitude.
“Yeah, it’s real,” LeBron James said when asked about it. “…You get tired a lot faster than you would if you wasn’t in it.”
The Lakers and Nuggets met in the 2020 West finals, and though the rosters are wildly different, the stars — James and Davis, Jokic and All-Star guard Jamal Murray — are the same.
“They’re better,” James said. “But they were great then and they’re great now. I think Joker [Jokic] has gotten two more years under his belt. And Jamal has gotten back to his regular form after the injury. And the rest of those guys have been playing 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 Jan. 9. They started Dennis Schroder, Thomas Bryant, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Max Christie and Patrick Beverley. Three other players not on the Lakers roster also played minutes in that game, which the Lakers lost.
The teams split the season series 2-2, both teams winning their home games.
While the Lakers underwent their midseason makeover, Denver has consistently been great in the West, drama-free save for a brief lull late in the season once its spot at the top of the West was assured.
At the center of all of it is Jokic, the biggest test the Lakers need to solve over the next two weeks.
“You’re not gonna speed him up. You’re not gonna slow him down. You just have to make sure you have a presence on him at all times,” Ham said. “There’s gonna be times where you’re not gonna pitch a shutout against him. There’s gonna be times where you have to withstand his passing, withstand his scoring.
“But you just try to as much as possible to put him in a position where it creates indecision and gets him to be off-balance a little bit — when possible.”
It might not be the case Tuesday, but so far this postseason the Lakers have always found a way.
This story originally appeared on LA Times