LeBron James on Nuggets since bubble: “They’re better, but they were great then”

What the Joker claims he can’t recall, the King refuses to overlook.

The last time the Nuggets and Lakers met in the Western Conference Finals, they were quarantined at Disney World and LeBron James was hellbent on bringing a championship banner back to Disney Land for the first time in a decade. Los Angeles advanced in five games, then won the title.

“To be honest, I don’t remember,” Nikola Jokic said when asked what he learned from the experience.

What James remembers isn’t the number of games the series lasted, but rather the margin for error. He remembers a series in which no game was decided by more than 12 points, one in which the only reason L.A. didn’t trail 2-1 was an Anthony Davis buzzer beater.

“They’re better (than they were), but they were great then,” James said Monday, politely protesting questions about how different Denver is now vs. then. “And they’re great now. Joker has got two more years under his belt. Jamal (Murray) has gotten back to his regular form after the injury. And the rest of those guys are playing exceptional basketball.”

Just how highly does LeBron think of the No. 1 seed in the West? He described the Nuggets with one “really” for every win he must muster in order to spoil Denver’s save-the-date at the NBA Finals.

“They’re a really, really, really, really good team,” he said.

Player personnel aside, there is one element of this matchup that differs from the COVID-19 bubble of the 2020 playoffs. This time around, James and the Lakers have to play up to four games out of their comfort zone at altitude.

“It is real,” James said. “Get tired a lot faster than you would if you wasn’t in it. … Pretty much in the first quarter. A little bit in the second. The good thing about a playoff series: you’re here for a few days.”

Mutual respect ran high between the Nuggets and Suns throughout their second-round series, even during the more tense exchanges of gamesmanship. Kevin Durant admired Jokic’s dominance in defeat, only a couple of days after multiple conflicts involving the Denver center. Durant had even pushed Jokic away from a Phoenix huddle at one point during Game 5, then he proceeded to call Jokic one of the all-time greats after Game 6.

The same civility seems to be the theme for now as the Lakers and Nuggets prepare for Game 1 on Tuesday (6:30 p.m. MT) at Ball Arena. James lauded former teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for his energy and reliability that’s now a characteristic enjoyed by the Nuggets. Lakers coach Darvin Ham called Denver bench player Bruce Brown an X-factor.

“You have to come out ready for this new wave (of Nuggets),” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “… I just think they’re a solid ballclub. They know who they want to play through. They’ve got their two big dogs in Jokic and Murray, and they know who they are. They don’t try to draw any extra attention to themselves. … They’re efficient. They’re physical. They can play fast. They share the ball.”

As for the Nuggets core remaining from that bubble series?

“More experienced,” said James, who averaged 27 points, 10.4 rebounds and nine assists per game in the 2020 Western Conference Finals. “Every game, every postseason, every matchup allows you to continue grow as a franchise, as a team, and they’ve done that.”

Murray questionable for Game 1

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray is listed as questionable for Game 1 with a non-COVID illness, according to Monday’s injury report.

Murray was also questionable going into Game 6 against the Suns, but he played the close-out game after not getting out of bed until 2 or 3 p.m., he said afterward.

Murray averaged 24.8 points in the second-round series.

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