Stepping into the UC Heath practice gym at Ball Arena, it’s readily apparent that the Denver Nuggets are in a good place after the last two practices.

There are smiles, laughs, and a good natured attitude surrounding the moment, one that the Nuggets are familiar with after last season’s championship run. There’s also a level of seriousness, knowing that Saturday is coming quickly and the team must be exceptionally prepared.

“Yesterday, we had a good practice,” head coach Michael Malone shared with local media in attendance on Thursday. “Today’s practice I thought was exceptional. Guys were locked in. The energy was where you would want it. Guys were disciplined, understanding what we were trying to do on both ends of the floor.”

“You walk out of here feeling really good about where we are going into tomorrow.”

Jamal Murray agreed with his head coach’s interpretation of practice from today.

“I think just everybody’s intent and focus from today was great. I think everybody was just dialed in and involved, made some great plays. Yeah, everybody was just aware of their surroundings and the moment that we’re in.”

That moment, of course, is the playoffs. The Nuggets have been itching for this moment ever since training camp. They’ve wanted the opportunity to defend their championship belt, but there’s only so much a team can prove in the regular season when it comes to their playoff level.

It’s no wonder that Murray was one to bring up Denver’s focus. It’s his intensity and competitiveness, and that of Nikola Jokic, that give the Nuggets organization so much confidence heading into the postseason.

“Jamal’s postseason performances, stats, the way he elevates his game is incredible,” Malone shared. “I don’t remember a player in recent memory who can, after a regular season, play at that [elevated] level. It’s unfortunate. He’s never been an All-Star, but you can’t tell me that Jamal Murray is not one of the best guards in the NBA, one of the best guards in the world. In the playoffs last year, in the NBA Finals, the guy was just a machine.”

Murray is averaging the 24th most points and 38th most assists per game in playoff history, often playing as a second option to Jokic but also finding opportunities to make his own mark on the game. Whether it’s as an outside shooter, a slasher, a facilitator, or even defender, Murray’s game elevates when it matters most.

To Murray, that’s par for the course.

“I just feel like the playoffs is the time you wanna see the best players perform, and I try to do that every single time,” Murray emphasized after practice today. “The adrenaline is higher, the minutes are higher, the shots are more. Confidence is all the way up here,” (Murray gestures, raising a metaphorical bar).

“When they take off the leash like that, it’s fun to just go out there and play my game.”

It is interesting to hear Murray use that particular phrasing, as if he and the Nuggets have been restricting themselves during the regular season, saving themselves for this particular moment in time. What does that mean for upcoming playoff matchups? Perhaps more of the same.

The Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are the opponent the Nuggets will face in the first round.

“I think they’re going to play this year a lot better than they did last year,” Murray shared about the Lakers. “They’re a tough team. They’ve got arguably the greatest player to ever play. Anthony Davis is tough every single night. Every game we played last year was still a good, tough game that we had to grit out…I think this season they’re going to learn from their mistakes and bring a little bit more edge to the table.”

The Nuggets have plenty of respect for the Lakers, even if it isn’t always characterized that way. Denver brings a great effort vs Los Angeles almost every time because they know they have to, and they understand that they’re facing one of the toughest matchups against LeBron, no matter how old he is.

“He’s probably the best transition player of all-time,” Christian Braun shared after practice. “We know that. They’ve got a lot of guys that get out in transition, that spot up at three-point line, guys that get downhill and make plays.”

“He’s a great passer, he’s a one-man break, he’s a freight train,” Malone said of LeBron’s transition abilities. “There’s not one player in the league who can guard him, so there’s gotta be a crowd around. What we call it: we gotta stop and LOAD to the ball. He’s gotta see bodies.”

Easier said than done. The Lakers average 132.3 points per 100 possessions in transition, which ranks third in the entire NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass. Transition also accounts for 16.6% of Lakers offensive possessions, the fourth most in the NBA. The Lakers love to get out and run, and they’re really good at doing it.

Contrast that with Denver’s transition defense, and there are problems that begin to form. Off of rebounds, the Nuggets do a nice job in transition when their defense can make a concerted effort to get back. Off of turnovers? Not so much. The Nuggets allow an absurd 152.6 points per 100 possessions in transition after a turnover, by far the worst in the NBA.

When the Nuggets turn the ball over against the Lakers, they get in trouble. The Lakers averaged 15.3 fast break points per game against the Nuggets during the regular season. The Nuggets allowed 15.0 fast break points per game to the Lakers in the playoffs last year. That seems to be a number they can live with, but if the Nuggets allow 20+ points in transition consistently, they will be asking for trouble in this series. On the year during the regular season, the Lakers averaged 17.0 fast break points per game which ranked third in the NBA. If that number goes up, advantage Lakers. If it goes down, advantage Nuggets.

Beyond transition though, the Nuggets have good personnel to disrupt what the Lakers want to do in the halfcourt. Aaron Gordon is as strong a forward defender as there is in the NBA to match up with both James and Davis. Jokic does a great job rebounding and reducing some of the extra possessions the Lakers usually get. The Nuggets mostly do a great job defending without fouling while Jokic is on the floor, which can take some of the sting out of the Lakers free throw disparity that often shows up.

The Nuggets will have to be disciplined, and they know that. They know what time it is.

“We know what it’s going to take,” Murray emphasized. “We know how long of a season it was. I think the preparation that we have now in these six days off are crucial.”

“I remember being in the playoffs last year. It was like, we win a game, but you gotta bring that same level of energy the next game, because they’re coming with even more. I just remember how much of a mental stress it was to bring that performance, that play, that adrenaline, that intent every day, so I think we’re just waiting for that to happen.”

The Nuggets are locking in. They’re getting ready for the burden of what’s to come, of what it means to be a defending champion with a target on their back. They know they’re going to get everybody’s best shot, and that it won’t be exactly like last year.

For that reason, they’re more prepared for this moment than they’ve ever been before.