The Los Angeles Lakers broke out of their three-game losing streak last night with an impressive win over the Denver Nuggets as LeBron James watched from the sideline because of his ankle. The Nuggets had been 16-4 over their last 20 games. The Lakers, coming off a seven-point loss to the bottom-feeding Toronto Raptors that spurred many a discussion about how much trouble they're really in, managed to emerge victorious anyway by the score of 93-89.
The biggest reason for the win came from one of the biggest men on the roster. Marc Gasol has been a forgotten man in the frontcourt after Anthony Davis returned to the fold and the coaching staff honed in on getting Andre Drummond reps with the full-time starting lineup with the playoffs around the corner. Gasol hadn't seen the floor in seven of the team's previous 10 games. Then Drummond got into foul trouble against presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic on Monday night, and Gasol was forced to step in.
He was excellent. The days of the big Spaniard posting big numbers are over, but in scoring 10 points and collecting seven rebounds with two assists and a block, he played a huge role in Los Angeles' win and ended up with a plus-minus of +17 on the night in only 16 minutes of play. The Lakers were gelling every second he was on the floor, and Gasol helped limit Jokic to "only" a 32-point, nine-rebound, five-assist night. Considering Jokic needed 28 shots to get to that 32-point mark, it was a resounding success.
It's also a potential hint of what is to come for Los Angeles. They're battling to avoid the NBA play-in game right now, but when the postseason hits in a week and a half, a first-round matchup with the Nuggets is not out of the question. As things stand right now, the Lakers are a half-game up on the Mavs and one game up on the Blazers for the five-seed. The Nuggets are tied with the Clippers for the third seed. Whether it's a three vs. six or a four vs. five matchup, Denver is on the short list of potential first-round opponents for the Lakers. And if they don't meet in the first and everything goes well for both teams, a second or even third-round matchup is not out of the question.
The Lakers are going to need Gasol for those matchups. Drummond is far more athletic than the former Defensive Player of the Year, but he doesn't have nearly the same defensive instincts or ability to alter shots with simple positioning like Gasol. That makes Drummond a terrible matchup with Jokic because the Serbian center utilizes finesse rather than athleticism to score his points and manipulate defenses. Drummond can't process the game quick enough to keep up. Very, very few players can. Gasol is one of them.
In three games against Denver this season, Gasol has matched up with Jokic for 11 minutes and 47 seconds of game time. In those 11 minutes, Jokic has mustered a total of only 17 points (shooting 42 percent from the field) and two assists, per NBA.com matchup stats. That's not a big sample size by any means and with the season Jokic is having defenses can only hope to contain him rather than stop him, as the old saying goes. But given Gasol had 41.4 possessions at least partially guarding Jokic, 17 points total is an extremely low points-per-possession number that the Lakers will take every day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Los Angeles won't be able to play Gasol 30 minutes a game even if he's totally stifling Jokic. He negatively impacts their offense too much compared to the other options and the Lakers' best lineup (regardless of matchup) is when AD is the only big man on the floor. But every minute matters in the playoffs. Gasol not only has the defensive IQ to not fall for any of Jokic's tricks when he has the ball, he also sees the potential passing lanes emerge before they actually do and can make them difficult for the Nuggets, if not close them off completely. It's a balancing act nearly impossible to pull off over the course of a full game, but Gasol is the only big man capable of doing it so long as the Lakers are dead-set on saving the small-ball lineup with Davis at the five for only the biggest moments.
Jokic is going to get his regardless. I'm not sitting here telling you Gasol can shut him down. But making life difficult for him is how to beat Denver. The Lakers did that last night when they kept him to under 50 percent shooting from the field. Gasol played a big part in that. He may not be right for every matchup, but if Los Angeles sees the Nuggets come playoff time, Gasol will be invaluable.