It had to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

Throughout the franchise history of the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers have been the older brother. The Lakers have 17 NBA title while the Nuggets are still seeking their first. In the brief windows of opportunity for the Nuggets, it has often been the Lakers to slam the door on those hopes. The Nuggets have made the Western Conference Finals just four times in franchise history, and in three of those years (1985, 2009, and 2020) it was the Lakers to defeat them before reaching the NBA Finals.

Interestingly enough, dynamic duos have defined each matchup. In 1985, the Nuggets duo of Alex English and Fat Lever was unable to challenge Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, especially after English sustained a major injury that held him out of the series. In 2009, the Nuggets duo of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups ran into Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and though the Nuggets had chances, they threw them away at inopportune moments. In 2020 during the bubble run, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray made their first serious run as a tandem but were stopped in their tracks by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, both of whom were playing near the peak of their powers at the time.

In each of the previous series, it was clear that Denver’s star tandem was outmatched.

This year? The Nuggets, for the first time in franchise history, have the best player on the floor.

Jokić is now 28 years old and at the tail end of what may be the best season of his career to date. Back when he was 25, the Nuggets lost to the Lakers after an impressive run through the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in the two prior series. Since then, he’s won the MVP award at 26 years old and 27 years old respectively and has leveled up dramatically. During the 2020 playoffs, Jokić averaged superstar caliber numbers based on his all-around contributions. Now, he’s averaging megastar numbers against strong defensive centers.

It’s clear that Jokić was affected by the length, physicality, and athleticism that the Lakers had in their frontcourt. Between Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, and a more active LeBron James, the Lakers were the biggest, most physical team in the bubble, and the Nuggets couldn’t handle it. Jokić couldn’t handle it. He wasn’t strong enough, nor as composed, as he is now.

Jokić has evolved in many ways in the last three years. On top of simply becoming a better, more skilled athlete, he sees and understands the game better than ever. He reads the opposing team and their tendencies extremely well, helping offer an advantage for himself and his teammates more frequently than ever before. Jokić is far more comfortable as the team’s leading decision maker, scorer, and leader than ever before. He rarely lets the team stray from its target for more than a possession or two, and that level of focus and attention to detail never lets the opposing team off the hook. Jokić exploits an opposing team’s weaknesses with unfathomable precision with an ability to execute the hard stuff at a higher level than just about anybody in the history of the game. Shooting floaters and hitting cutters at the rates Jokić is currently doing it is simply insane.

While Jokić has his weaknesses defensively, he also has his strengths, namely his rebounding. The Nuggets have a defensive rebounding rate of 79.0% with Jokić on the floor, a higher team rebounding percentage than any other starting center in the playoffs other than Joel Embiid (primarily because the Sixers faced the Brooklyn Nets in the first round). The Nuggets rarely allow opponents extra possessions with Jokić on the floor, and while opposing teams can create shots against him in space, they don’t often benefit from Jokić being pushed out of position underneath.

The other factor with Jokić is that he and the Nuggets don’t allow a ton of shots at the rim and don’t foul a lot either. Teams are settling for mid-range jumpers/floaters and three-pointers a lot more against Jokić. Though opposing teams score better against the Nuggets in the playoffs when Jokić is on the floor, that’s mostly true of any traditional center. The numbers also aren’t that bad. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets are allowing 113.4 points per 100 possessions when Jokić is on the floor, which is a very reasonable number for a starting center.

Many of Jokić’s detractors believed that the Nuggets could not build a championship caliber defense around Jokić. While they may not be able to get as many stops as an Anthony Davis led defense, they don’t have to. Overall, Jokić ranks 10th out of 16 playoff starting centers in defensive rating, but that’s good enough given that he’s lapping the field in offensive rating. Jokić’s 123.2 offensive rating is a full 5.4 points per 100 possessions higher than Al Horford, the next highest rated center. That gap matters.

Now though, Jokić will be tested in a different way. The aforementioned Davis leads a Lakers squad that has proven formidable on the defensive end. The Lakers are allowing just 106.9 points per 100 possessions in the 2023 playoffs, the lowest rating in the playoff field. The Lakers demolished the Memphis Grizzlies, allowing just 105.2 points per 100 possessions. Against the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers allowed a more pedestrian but still elite 110.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare that to the Nuggets who allowed 110.4 points per 100 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and 111.3 points per 100 against the Phoenix Suns, and it’s clear that the Lakers have the better defense than the Nuggets do.

The Lakers haven’t faced an offense like Denver’s, but they’re still tough on that end of the floor. Davis is averaging an absurd 1.4 steals and 3.3 (!) blocks per game, showcasing his ability to protect the rim at a high level. Dennis Schroder, Austin Reaves, Jarred Vanderbilt, and even LeBron James have made their presence known on defense in each of the prior series. They were able to shut down the Grizzlies almost entirely and slow down the Warriors to the point of breaking.

Jokić will have to challenge Davis in single coverage in post up and isolation situations, something he did well earlier this year.

There are times when Jokić avoided attacking Davis on the interior and instead shot floaters and jumpers over his outstretched pterodactyl wingspan. Jokić has shot 47.5% from three-point range in the playoffs this year and will have to continue hitting those outside shots to pull Davis away from the rim. Perimeter jumpers are often a bailout shot for Jokić toward the end of the shot clock, but if he hits them at a high enough clip, the Lakers will have very few answers for the Nuggets offense.

Of course, the vast majority of Jokić’s offense is in the paint. He’s averaging 18.5 points per game in the paint during the playoffs which leads the entire NBA. He also leads the NBA in second chance points, which he often accumulates on tip-ins around the rim. That part of his game can’t waver against an elite shot blocker like Davis, and I wouldn’t expect it to given Jokić’s regular season success against the Brow.

Jokić will have to punish that matchup, and he’ll also have to punish any time the Lakers decide to not guard him with Davis. The rest of the Lakers rotation is smaller, filled with the 6’8″ to 6’10” combo forwards that opposing teams occasionally like to use to defend Jokić, allowing their rim protecting center to roam off of Aaron Gordon instead. There will be times when LeBron, Rui Hachimura, or Jarred Vanderbilt will guard Jokić. Even Wenyen Gabriel or Mo Bamba could get an opportunity off the Lakers deep bench if the first few options don’t pan out. The Nuggets have had struggles when a physical forward defends Jokić and the rim protecting center defends Gordon, and this is a series that’s primed and ready for a matchup like that. During the first round against the Timberwolves, Jokić solved the Kyle Anderson matchup with Gobert behind him with relative ease, and the T’Wolves went away from that relatively quickly.

Jokić can defeat that coverage early on by setting screens for Murray and forcing even smaller players to switch onto him. That will lead to offensive rebounds and fouls often. Or, he can simply punish the initial mismatch 1-on-1 more consistently than he did in the regular season, something he’s clearly apt to do.

On the other end, Jokić will most likely guard Davis defensively, something he did not do a great job of in the regular season matchups. Davis scored efficiently and effectively in those games with little resistance from Jokić, who will have a challenge covering the combination of a silky smooth jumper, elite length/athleticism, and a penchant for drawing fouls.

If the Lakers decide to start Vanderbilt for defensive purposes, the Nuggets may decide to put Jokić on him occasionally and have Aaron Gordon slide over to Davis. Gordon would be an effective Davis defender, just as he was effective against both Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant. That would put Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Michael Porter Jr. on LeBron James though, which isn’t a great matchup for the Nuggets either.

The easiest way for the Nuggets to defend the Lakers is if Jokić steps up to the challenge of guarding Davis. It keeps Jokić around the rim more frequently and keeps other matchups more positionally sound. Still, it’s a lot of pressure on Jokić to be great, or at least passable, against a player that likes to draw fouls. Davis will look to get Jokić in foul trouble if he can, especially given how important Jokić is to Denver’s success. Other players will also attack Jokić seeking out contact. LeBron James, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder all draw fouls at a relatively high rate on drives, and Jokić will have to contest those plays well enough to force misses but not well enough to induce illegal contact. It’s a tough balance to strike, but Jokić has to do it.

Ultimately, this is the biggest, most important test of Jokić’s career. The spotlight is on him and the Nuggets as brightly as it has ever been. The Nuggets are technically the favorites for the series and deserve to be. They’re the top seed in the Western Conference, have homecourt advantage during this round, and have taken care of business in each of the previous rounds. Jokić also has a serious claim as the best player in the league today, which often helps to decide a series.

Stepping up to the plate here would be a big, big deal. It would quiet so much of the narrative about the Nuggets and Jokić as frauds, that the previous MVPs were fake since Jokić has no chance to win a championship. Well now, the Nuggets are in a great position to succeed because of their MVP caliber player. At 28 years old, Jokić is in the prime of his career, having gone through trials and tribulations as a star player and emerged on the other side of the criticism. This moment in time is extremely important for not just Jokić, but for the belief that smaller markets have a chance in the NBA. Jokić is good enough that he and the Nuggets can defeat those narratives with just four wins, even if those four wins have to happen against this generation’s GOAT, the best defensive player alive, and the glamour franchise that has defeated the Nuggets at every turn.

I guess it’s never easy.