LeBron James calls Nikola Jokic 'one of the best players to ever play this game'

After the Lakers’ last practice before their playoff series begins Saturday night, LeBron James praised Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, calling him “one of the best players to ever play this game.”

“He does everything. Does everything. The most important thing is he changes the way his teammates think about their own play,” James said. “When you’re able to inspire your teammates to play at a level that sometimes they don’t even feel like they can play at, that’s the true testament of a great one.”

James said Jokic’s combination of size and force is tough to equal, but that’s a challenge the Lakers have to accept.

“There are a lot of guys who are physical but don’t possess the frame that Joker has as well. And he’s in great shape too,” James said. “Being able to match that intensity throughout 48 minutes, or however you’re on the floor and he’s on the floor, you have to match that. He’s damn good. And you just try to make it tough. He’s very good at everything. Offensively, he can do everything. You just try to make it tough on him.”

Stopping Jokic — or even slowing him — wasn’t really a focus for the Lakers on Friday as they arrived in Denver ahead of Game 1 (5:30 p.m. PDT, Channel 7).

“It’s a team defense just trying to contain guys, make it tough for them. Ball pressure. Mixing up pitches,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “It’s not gonna be perfect all the time. Obviously, they’re gonna make shots. But we gotta continue to play. We make a mistake, try to make a hard mistake. Just try not to give them anything easy.”

The same goes for Jamal Murray, who has been a star in the postseason — and against the Lakers.

Murray averaged 25 points on 51.8% shooting from the field when the teams met in the 2020 conference finals. He torched the Lakers last spring for 32.5 points on 52.7% shooting in the Nuggets’ four-game sweep in the conference finals.

“Obviously, he’s a hell of a player and in matchups against us in the past he’s been very efficient, very effective especially him and Jokic’s pick-and-rolls,” Austin Reaves said. “So just making it tough for him and you know guarding him as a collective group. You can’t just guard him with one person, you got to guard him with five and like I said make it tough.”

The biggest area of focus, considering Denver’s eight consecutive wins against the Lakers, is how the Nuggets are able to win crunch-time minutes.

“We really touched on it today,” Davis said. “And we’ll see if it works. I mean, it hasn’t worked yet. But we did make a change in what we want to do late game, and we’ll see if they get to it tomorrow, then we’ll try what we worked on today and see if it works.”

Having James feel better physically and emotionally than he did last season in the playoffs should matter. The Lakers will find out Saturday.

“Nothing is going to change about what happened in the past. You just want them to be passionate about being here, being in this moment,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said about his team. “The opportunity to play in the postseason is not a rite of passage by any means. We pulled things together at the right time to be able to have this moment against the defending champs. It’s about looking forward, going forward and being more passionate about competing.

“And with the group that we have, our group is really tight-knit. Totally have a lot of fire power. So, we’re looking forward to the challenge and we’re passionate about competing.”

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