By Gio Gloria 

The best defenses in basketball don’t just stop opposing squads from scoring, they throw them off their element and crush their confidence (and sometimes their souls) with every stop. Teams like the Boston Celtics of the 60s, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, and the San Antonio Spurs didn’t just wreak havoc on the defensive end; these squads made it a point to beat you up and take your lunch money. 

While the Los Angeles Lakers don’t inspire the same energy as those aforementioned teams, they’ve made it a point to take the Portland Trailblazers and the Houston Rockets (not to mention their respective stars) off their rhythm and out of the Orlando bubble. 

Against the Denver Nuggets, however, they face a unique 1-2 punch in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, both of whom have led their squad back from consecutive 3-1 deficits. While the Lakers currently have a 2-0 series lead against the Nuggets, both games were night and day. Los Angeles managed to give Jokic and Murray fits in Game 1, but needed an Anthony Davis Mamba-esque 3-pointer to take a 2-0 series lead. If the Lakers want to avoid the 3-1 trap and advance to the finals, the key lies in a concerted effort on defense that relies more on timing rather than simply upping the pressure. 

The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers tried to use double teams to defend both Jokic and Murray, but both have avoided becoming ball stoppers in both series.  Jokic thrives in the passing game and while it is a staple for European big men, the Serbian is in a class of his own. Jokic can set the pick or initiate the pick and roll himself, with his versatility allowing Denver to maximize mismatches. 

On the other hand, Murray is a crafty playmaker with the ability to heat up in a heartbeat. He scored 50 points twice against the Jazz, and was instrumental in leading the Nuggets back from the proverbial 3-1 deficit. He’s not at the unicorn level like Jokic, but he’s not afraid to take (and make) the biggest shots at the brightest of stages. 

Previous opponents have tried to tire Jokic and the Nuggets but the Los Angeles Lakers have taken it to another level in the first games of the Western Conference Finals. It’s not just the Serbian big man’s scoring that they’ve tried to limit; shutting down his passing lanes, putting an athletic and experienced defender in Dwight Howard, and timing the double teams have been the strategies they’ve deployed against the 2020 All-NBA Second Team member. 

Not only were Jokic’s assists limited to two, but he only played 25 minutes in Game 1, effectively limiting his production. It also didn’t help that he was in foul trouble for crucial stretches of the game. Key to that has been Howard, who was a nightmare for the Joker in Game 1. He may not be the prime athlete he once was, but Howard can still cover ground and keep up with the plodding Jokic. He successfully frustrated Jokic and rarely gave him space to create. On a team level, his ability to recover defensively has also been a welcome development as drives to the lane are shut down. 

The key moving forward to containing Jokic relies on taking him out of his element, which is his playmaking. Creating offensive opportunities for his teammates opens up the rest of his game and the Lakers either forced Jokic to bleed for every point or force passes that wouldn’t necessarily convert into points. 

When Jokic is gasping for air between possessions, half the job is done. Fatigue affects decision making and forces him to stagnate Denver’s overall offense. Mason Plumlee normally comes in for Jokic, it changes the complexion of the Nuggets offense as Jamal Murray becomes the focal point and provides an easier defensive plan of attack for the Lakers.   

For Murray, the Lakers decided to double team him after he runs through the screens or when he approaches the set pick, depending on who his roller is. The key in containing Murray was also in preventing him from attacking the middle, which would allow him to see his options or hit the stop and pop shots he’s been able to hit over the Jazz and the Clippers. Should he get to his favorite spots in the middle, Los Angeles normally deploys a timely blitz that forces him to make quick decisions on the fly. 

As much as possible, the Lakers allow him to get the switch on the pick-and-roll when Davis is the big man because he can keep up with him and force him to change decisions mid-air. 

The Lakers did a better job on him in Game 1, but his 40 point output in Game 2. Having endured a trying Game 1, Murray found his spots more often and nearly orchestrated a comeback with Jokic. Overall, the Lakers will try to limit the number of opportunities Jokic and Murray will have to go to their two-man game. 

Coaches will say the primary way to stop a star player is to trap them. While this does hold weight, it pays to remember that opposing players and teams are not robots; they too can adjust and read defenses. The Lakers have shown that the key to pressuring opponents is in the timing, as on-the-fly and ill-timed decisions normally lead to errors. 

Los Angeles’ offense also gets its punch from its defense, with the likes of James, Rondo, and Caruso leading the fast break for a Davis or James alley-oop or a transition 3-pointer from Danny Green or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Lakers thrive in transition and having nearly more than one ball handler in the game helps in pushing the ball against an unset defense. 

It will take a team effort to eliminate the Nuggets but it begins with effectively defending their stars, who themselves thrive in a team-oriented environment. The Lakers will have to go deep into their defensive playbook to take the Nuggets out of their element and disrupt any offensive rhythm that could generate their runs.