Nuggets open title defense vs. revamped, motivated Lakers

The Denver Nuggets spent the offseason celebrating while the Los Angeles Lakers were simmering.

Denver is in unchartered territory as the reigning NBA champions after an impressive 16-4 run through the postseason last spring. One of the teams in the Nuggets’ path was Los Angeles, whom they swept in the Western Conference finals.

The Lakers don’t have to wait for another shot at the Nuggets, but they will have to witness them raise their championship banner when the teams open the NBA season Tuesday night in Denver.

The Nuggets had never beaten Los Angeles in the playoffs before last season, and while it was a sweep, the games were close. That didn’t stop Denver from relishing the series win, and head coach Michael Malone lit the fuse in the immediate aftermath of the victory.

“If anybody is still talking about the Lakers in the NBA Finals, that’s on them,” Malone said in June. “They’ve gone fishing. We’re still playing.”

The comment reportedly angered LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and Davis was vocal about Malone’s words providing motivation.

“It was just a lot of talking,” Davis said on media day earlier this month. “We get it, y’all won, but me and Bron had some conversations. … We can’t wait (to play them).”

The back-and-forth will spill onto the court in the opener, and while the Nuggets have the same starting five that won it all, there have been significant changes. Bruce Brown, one of the key players in the drive to the title, signed a big-money contract with the Indiana Pacers and Jeff Green also left via free agency to join the Houston Rockets.

The moves hurt Denver’s depth but the team addressed it in the offseason. Zeke Nnaji just signed a contract extension, veteran Justin Holiday and Reggie Jackson were signed to add backcourt depth and the Nuggets drafted sharp-shooting Julian Strawther.

Denver also has the player many consider to be the best in the league in Nikola Jokic. The do-it-all center was the NBA MVP for two straight years before finishing second to Joel Embiid last season and then promptly was named MVP of the Western Conference finals and the NBA Finals.

The Nuggets also have Jamal Murray, who is fresh off a breakout playoffs, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to round out arguably the top starting five in the league. Christian Braun, who as a rookie worked his way into valuable playing time in the postseason, is expected to have a bigger role off the bench.

The Lakers have retooled, adding Gabe Vincent, Cam Reddish and Taurean Prince to an experienced roster. James, who turns 39 on Dec. 30, is entering his 21st season but still plays at a high level while Davis, 30, is entering his 12th season.

The biggest thing that could derail Los Angeles is health. James and Davis have missed chunks of games and an extended absence by either could turn the Lakers from a top contender to another run through the play-in tournament.

Denver’s swagger has provided a reason to start strong.

“I go play every game the way I’m going to go play the first game against them,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “But I think it adds a little bit of motivation to go play really well.”