What you might call load management, LeBron James and the Lakers are calling a thoracic muscle injury in his upper back, one that has rendered him unlikely to play against Denver on Sunday night. He suffered the injury, apparently, when attacking the basket against Indiana on Tuesday, played through the injury against Milwaukee on Thursday and found it was an ongoing problem during the weekend.
He did make certain that ESPN reported the injury was not “load management,” which is important to him because he has been critical of players using load management as an excuse to duck games during the season.
But if it were the playoffs, James would probably be playing. He did suit up for the Bucks, after all, a nationally televised game that was hyped as a Finals preview. Maybe the back hurts more now. Backs are tricky. I once pulled a back muscle sneezing and was laid up for a week. (I live a very soft life.)
Still, Lakers coach Frank Vogel addressed the issue and when his words were distilled into their true meaning, he seemed to be saying that if James did not play, it would sorta be load management: “We want all our players to make sure that they’re healthy and being intelligent with this time of year and understanding it’s a marathon, it’s an 82-game season.”
This is all very important to the Lakers because they’re on a two-game losing streak and very much don’t want that to turn into three games. With Kyle Kuzma (left ankle) also dealing with an injury, the Lakers would be hard-pressed to be without James’ 25.8 points and league-best 10.6 assists.
And it’s no cellar-dweller they’re facing: The Nuggets enter the night on a five-game winning streak, currently third in the West with a 19-8 record.
Nuggets vs. Lakers Preview
The Nuggets have been a hard team to figure all season and, whether James plays or not, this game might have more to do with Denver than it does the Lakers. That’s because the Nuggets’ win streak came against five teams at .500 or below and all five wins were at home. Did the Nuggets get themselves back to the kind of basketball that had them considered a contender coming into the year? Or was that a baker’s winning streak—all about the cupcakes?
The numbers say the Nuggets turned a corner. Their offense came in at 116.5 points per 100 possessions, way above their season efficiency (108.3, 16th in the league). Star center Nikola Jokic seems to have awoken from his slumber—he’s averaging 20.1 points and 8.2 assists on 53.2 percent shooting in December after logging 15.6 points, 6.0 assists and 45.8 percent shooting to start the year.
Still, in their previous five road games, the Nuggets’ offensive efficiency was just 104.9 and the only reason it was that high was because of a blowout win in New York, where everyone was getting blowout wins at the time.
There’s no telling which Nuggets we’re going to see. Because of injuries, there’s literally no telling which Lakers we’re going to see. The line has bounced from 7.0 points down to 3.5 and back to 4.0, according to Fanduel.
It’s the ideal situation in which to lean on the home team. In the last 10 matchups between these two teams, the home bunch is 8-2 ATS. The under has been a reasonable bet lately, too, with four of the last five Lakers games going under. But 208.5? Hard to imagine this one staying that low.
Nuggets vs. Lakers Pick & Prediction
PICK: Lakers -4.0
SCORE PREDICTION: Lakers 110, Nuggets 104