Lakers, Nuggets try to improve on mediocre starts

Two teams that began the season with eyes on competing for a championship find themselves hovering around .500 midway through the season.

The Los Angeles Lakers made bold moves in the offseason, trading for Russell Westbrook and signing Carmelo Anthony, among other transactions. But so far things haven’t gone as well as they’d hoped. Los Angeles is 21-21 after losing its last two games, the second of which came at the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.

The Lakers hope to end the short skid when the visit the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

Los Angeles has been through a tough stretch, with center Anthony Davis out with a knee injury and a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. It has forced some adjustments to the lineup, including LeBron James playing some center.

It is reminiscent of Magic Johnson stepping in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 NBA Finals. James only sees it as something that needs to be done.

“I only play the game for one reason, it’s to win,” James said. “And no matter what I’ve been doing as far as this season so far, it hasn’t really resulted in as many wins as I would like. So I continue to see ways that I can be better as well. See ways of what I can do both offensively and defensively or for me from a leadership standpoint to help this team get over the hump a little bit more.”

James, who turned 37 on Dec. 30, continues to play at a high level, scoring 30 or more points in 11 of the last 12 games.

If anyone can understand putting his team on his shoulders, it’s Denver’s Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets have dealt with COVID-19 issues and some devastating injures — two players are out after tearing an ACL — but the steadying force has been Jokic.

The reigning MVP is putting up even better numbers this year but his supporting cast has been inconsistent. Denver was 4 for 33 from beyond the arc in a loss at the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, a game they led by 25 points midway through the third quarter before they finished with a season-low 85 points.

Thursday night, the Nuggets made 21 of 42 from deep and scored a season-high 140 points in a win over Portland. They didn’t lose a big second-half lead, a disturbing trend of late, and Jokic was able to sit out the fourth quarter before home games on back-to-back nights, starting with Los Angeles.

“I think everybody who’s a Nuggets fan was probably wondering when we got up big when the collapse was going to happen, and give our guys credit,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

The Nuggets got a scare when Will Barton fell head-first into the knee of Jusuf Nurkic in the third quarter and went to the locker room after being down on the court for several minutes. He suffered a strained neck and returned to the bench but didn’t play again. He said afterward he could have returned if needed and the Nuggets listed him as probable for Friday’s game.

Anthony may not play against the team that drafted him third overall in 2003 and where he played for more than seven seasons. He missed Wednesday’s game with a back injury and is listed as questionable.

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