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SAD NEWS: Supporters in tears as Jokic told Lakers fans tonight challenge will be horrible injuries Anthony Davis an LeBron James

Tonight, at 5:30 p.m. PT on ABC, the 47-35 Los Angeles Lakers’ bid to capture their 18th NBA title tips off in earnest, as they’ll open the playoffs on the road against the reigning champion Denver Nuggets (57-25).

LA’s postseason officially began on Tuesday. The team played a 7-8 matchup against the higher-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, but a 110-106 Lakers victory helped the Lakers leap up into the seventh seed… and a first round date against the Nuggets, generally considered the favorites to at least emerge out of the Western Conference this season.

Had Los Angeles thrown the game (or just unintentionally lost), the team would have been playing the Sacramento Kings in a second play-in meeting Friday, for the right to become the No. 8 seed and suit up against the Oklahoma City Thunder this weekend. LA is 3-1 against the Thunder this season and 0-3 against the Nuggets. But the Lakers are also 0-4 against the Kings this year, so winning Friday’s game was no gimme.

Can the underdog Lakers do the improbable and steal Game 1 tonight, in Ball Arena? Let’s dive in.

Today, the Lakers are currently listed as +6.5 underdogs against the Nuggets in this opening game, per The Action Network. All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both expected to submit big nights, with 24.5 points and 23.5 listed as their respective over/unders, but oddsmakers are less optimistic about the rest of the team. Denver’s best player, tpwo-time MVP center Nikola Jokic, outstrips LA’s best, and is a tough cover, plus the Nuggets have far more scoring punch even beyond Jokic and star point guard Jamal Murray. LA was swept in the Western Conference Finals by Denver last year, and that Lakers team boasted a far better sixth man (Dennis Schroder) than anyone on this year’s iteration. Still, I’m optimistic the Lakers will be able to at least swipe a game from the Nuggets, albeit most likely at Arena. Look for the Nuggets to take care of business on their home floor.

That’s pretty obvious: Murray. The 6’5″ guard has been dealing with a right knee contusion since March, and has looked a bit shaky since returning to play through it late into the regular season. Murray seemed destined to finally make his first All-Star berth this year, but injuries precluded that from happening. In 59 regular season games, the Kentucky product averaged 21.2 points on .481/.425/853 shooting splits, 6.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds, one steal and 0.7 blocks a night. If his health costs him availability or impedes on his efficacy in a major way, it could help swing the momentum in the Lakers’ favor.

Yes, we’re talking about just avoiding sweeps, not winning. That’s how good this Denver squad is. This question boils down to Rui Hachimura and D’Angelo Russell. Hachimura emerged as a massive two-way cog last year, even defending Jokic for big stretches (Davis proved to be more useful on Aaron Gordon than he was in stopping Jokic, so he was shifted there). Russell was terrible in the aforementioned sweep, and was supplanted by Schroder in the closeout Game 4. If we are treated to the Russell we’ve seen since the calendar flipped over to 2024, that could prove critical for Los Angeles to steal a game or two. Russell’s shooting and passing have been excellent and fully in-control, as he is finally playing within himself a bit more than he had in the past. Will his confidence hold? That remains to be seen.

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