DENVER — Sporting a new haircut on Monday, Nikola Jokic will enter the Western Conference finals with a fresh mentality.
Even though this will be the Denver Nuggets’ second conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers since 2020, Jokic says this will be a new experience against a new team. Which is a good thing, because when asked what he learned from the Nuggets’ five-game loss to LeBron James and the Lakers in the bubble, Jokic said, “To be honest, nothing. I don’t remember it.”
Jokic certainly won’t recognize these Lakers. Since these teams last faced each other on Jan. 9, the Lakers have moved on from Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Thomas Bryant and Kendrick Nunn and have added Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba and Tristan Thompson.
Of the title team in 2020, only James and Anthony Davis remain.
“We didn’t play with this kind of Lakers [team],” Jokic said. “So this is going to be basically a new team for us. Probably everything is new, everything is different.
“They’re playing amazing in these playoffs. Since [the trade] deadline, they’re playing really well.”
Jokic also spoke glowingly about Davis, his big man counterpart. This will be Jokic’s biggest test this postseason after facing Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the first round and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton in the second.
“AD is a guard in a 7-foot-2 body,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “He is able to handle the ball really well, able to draw fouls, so you have to be conscientious with your hands. He can shoot that middy, fadeaway over both shoulders, just his skill package while being that big.”
Of course, the Lakers will have to contend with Jokic, who has added two MVP trophies since they last saw him in the Western Conference finals.
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Jokic enters this matchup fresh off dropping three triple-doubles in his last four games against the Suns. He averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists while shooting 59.4% from the field against Phoenix.
Denver coach Michael Malone says Jokic always has been this great on the court but, in the years since the bubble, has matured.
“Nikola has just to me been a definition of greatness for a while now,” Malone said. “The consistency in which he plays at, the level he plays at is just you marvel at sometimes. [But] he’s changed. He’s married, he’s a father, he’s matured.
“I’m sure the game has continued to slow down for him. But he was great in the bubble. Jamal [Murray] was great in the bubble and Nikola is still doing things that very few guys in NBA history have done. The series he just came out of against Phoenix averaging a triple-double was just incredible.”
Jokic hopes that the Lakers will see a different Nuggets squad in this Western Conference finals rematch. While he still has Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Jokic’s new-look team now boasts veterans like Gordon, former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Jeff Green.
“We are more experienced,” Jokic said of this current squad. “We have been there before. We are maybe a little bit more, not focused, [but playing in] different environments [than the bubble]. So I think we are just experienced, playing a little bit more together.”