‘GREAT ONE’- LeBron James extols Jokic ahead of showdown

On the day before the beginning of his third playoff series against Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic in the past five years, LeBron James showered praise on the two-time MVP, who is considered to be a front-runner to win the award a third time this season.

“He’s one of the best players to ever play this game,” James said after the Los Angeles Lakers’ practice Friday afternoon at Ball Arena. “It’s that simple.”

James has tangled with his fair share of greats in past postseasons: four straight NBA Finals against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors; three Finals against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs spaced out over eight years; four playoff series against the “Big Three” Boston Celtics.

James, a four-time MVP himself, said the biggest testament to Jokic’s talent is the way the rest of the Nuggets play around him.

“He does everything,” James said of Jokic, who is coming off a season in which he averaged 26.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists.

“The most important thing is he changes the way his teammates think about their own play. 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 beat Jokic in 2020 Western Conference finals in five games; Jokic beat James in last year’s conference finals in a four-game sweep.

One difference the Lakers have going for them this time around is James’ health.

The Lakers star missed a month late last season because of a torn tendon in his right foot and was missing his signature burst come playoff time, worn down even more by the time he had helped L.A. through the play-in tournament and the first two rounds before the loss to Denver.

“Much better rhythm, physically, emotionally all of that, coming into this series this year compared to the Western Conference finals last year,” James said.

“I was extremely banged up from the last two weeks of the season, going through the whole postseason. So, not 100 [percent] but I don’t think anyone is 100 right now. So that’s OK. But I feel better than I did last year.”

Not that Jokic will be James’ problem to figure out alone.

It won’t come down to any one Laker, actually. Even with Anthony Davis, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, on the team.

“Nikola is really good at developing a rhythm against whatever defensive scheme is being used against him,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.

“And it’s only a matter of time before he figures things out. … So you just want to change up your pitches and sometimes that not only includes coverages but there’s matchups involved in all of that too.”

Davis upped his gamesmanship ahead of Saturday’s Game 1 (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), not wanting to reveal specifics in case the Nuggets were scanning news coverage for tidbits to factor into their preparation.

“We got a game plan for different scenarios depending on who’s on him — time and score situation,” Davis said.

“I don’t know if they watch our interviews and stuff, so I’m not going to give too much.”

One defender L.A. won’t have at its disposal to throw at Jokic is Jarred Vanderbilt. He has been sidelined since Feb. 1 with a right midfoot sprain and was wearing a walking boot at practice Friday.

Ham said Vanderbilt remains day-to-day and there has been no setback in his recovery timeline. The coach insisted that the boot was meant to stabilize Vanderbilt’s foot on the flight from L.A. to Denver. Vanderbilt is listed as out on the injury report for Game 1.

The Lakers will have the same group available that has helped them win 12 out of their past 15 games heading into the start of the first round, led by the 21-year veteran, who might not have many postseason runs left.

“I just know I don’t have much time left to play the game that I love,” James said.

“Every moment I get on the floor is a treat. Postseason, regular season, play-in, in-season tournament, it’s all pretty cool because of the last few stages of my career.”

It’s a treat that Ham says the 39-year-old James takes very serious, however.

“Just the look on his face, you see it in his eyes that it’s no joke,” Ham said. “It’s money time.”



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