After coming back from a 3-1 lead against the fraudulent LA Clippers, the Denver Nuggets have advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009. That year, they faced and lost to the Los Angeles Lakers who went on to win their first of back-to-back championships with the star duo of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
The Lakers are back in the conference finals again, having won both of their first two rounds in just five games. The Nuggets have been the opposite, going to seven games in every playoff series they have played with this core (two last year and two this year). Denver has also come back from 3-1 deficits in both of their series, proving over and over again that they are a resilient bunch that cannot be taken lightly.
On paper, the Nuggets are not more talented than the Clippers. But they are led by two fearless stars, have depth at every position, and are well-coached. The Lakers cannot take them lightly and, if the first two rounds are any indication, they will not.
Here are some of the keys to look out for as the Lakers get set for game one against the Nuggets on Friday:
Jokic has been one of the absolute best players in the postseason. The sweet-passing big man dominated the Clippers, in particular, who often guarded him with the smaller Montrezl Harrell. The Lakers simply cannot double-team him because he will pick apart their defense with his passing. Guarding him one-on-one, however, is also dangerous as he is one of the most efficient post-scorers in the league.
This may be a series where JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard see more playing time than they did against the Rockets. They give the Lakers bigger bodies to make it difficult for Jokic in the post without doubling him. They also protect Anthony Davis from foul trouble against the crafty Nuggets center who can get to the free-throw line seemingly at will. Head coach Frank Vogel has already hinted that the two Lakers’ centers will have a bigger role – pun intended – in this series than the last.
Of course, McGee and Howard are risks in their own right. For one, they need to be able to step out on 3-pointers from Jokic and the guards he consistently runs dribble hand-offs with. They also will not keep Jokic moving defensively, allowing him to be in better positions at the rim to provide help. Jokic isn’t a rim protector by any means, but he’s also not a poor defender. The best way to go at him is to use the Lakers’ bigs speed and athleticism to force him to keep moving his feet. The Lakers had a ton of success doing that in their matchups against Denver this year; Davis averaged 29.3 points and 9.2 rebounds in four games against the Nuggets and seemed to fatigue the Nuggets’ star late in games.
As mentioned earlier, the Nuggets are an insanely deep team even if many of their rotation pieces are not household names. That’s especially true in their backcourt where Jamal Murray deservedly gets all the hype. Murray has had incredible performances all postseason, including multiple 50-point outings but while the starting “point” guard has at times carried his team offensively, he is far from the only Nuggets guard capable of giving the Lakers problems.
Gary Harris joins Murray in the starting backcourt and he seems to have regained his form after a mostly disappointing season. His defense is absolutely crucial for the Nuggets but he is also a knock-down shooter (37.5 percent from three in the playoffs) and can put the ball on the floor against hard closeouts. Off the bench, both Torrey Craig and Monte Morris love to push the pace and are not shy about shooting the ball. They are more than capable of racking up points and assists if the defense is not focused. Rajon Rondo will be a major key for LA; can he play enough defense on the Nuggets’ quicker guards to validate his staying on the court to stabilize the team’s offense? He held his own against James Harden and Russell Westbrook for stretches but while the Rockets’ duo are clearly more talented, the Nuggets’ guards pose different threats.
This will be a series where the Lakers’ guards will be tested defensively and they have had their issues at times this year containing quicker guards. The team will need to contain Murray without trapping him as they did James Harden (Jokic is infinitely more dangerous as a playmaker on the short roll in a four-on-three situation than anyone the Rockets used in that role) to prevent him from winning games with his scoring outpours. Denver will run pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop actions using Murray and Jokic throughout every game, forcing defenses to have to guard their two most prolific weapons who can both shoot, drive, and pass. They can replicate this, to an extent, with their bench crew including the aforementioned guards and Mason Plumlee who allows the Nuggets to play the same style of basketball when Jokic sits.
The Lakers have to be hyper-focused defensively because Denver boasts a potent offense (fifth-best in the NBA during the regular season). Unlike the Rockets who could become stagnant due to the nature of their iso-heavy offense, Denver’s players constantly cut off the ball and come off screens knowing Jokic is capable of finding them for easy buckets. Defending the Nuggets is not all about slowing down Murray or Jokic in the scoring department, it’s ensuring that their role players are not given easy looks off of their passes.
The LeBron James Series
Look, we can call every series the LeBron James series. After all, the Lakers superstar is averaging 26.6 points and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 55 percent from the field and 37 percent from behind the arc. LeBron has once again claimed the best in the world title with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard bowing out before their respective conference finals.
Still, this particular matchup seems extra juicy for James who is looking for the tenth NBA Finals appearance of his career. The Nuggets are a good defensive team but they don’t have a true option to give James any real trouble. Paul Millsap may seem like a decent choice but he was eviscerated by James in the postseason in his Atlanta Hawks days and has only become slower. Additionally, the Nuggets will likely want the power forward mainly defending Davis so as to avoid any mismatches.
Gary Harris will likely get the bulk of the defensive responsibilities on James and while the guard is a great defender, he does not have nearly enough size and strength to bother James. The Nuggets’ other options are scarce. Michael Porter Jr. would not stand a chance despite his bigger frame. Will Barton could return and play in the postseason for the first time this year but he lacks the strength to hang with James as well. When LeBron gets to the rim, the Nuggets don’t have anyone to really bother his shot, even if Jokic will be in the right position for a contest.
The Lakers will almost certainly go back to the James and Davis pick-and-roll game they had so much success with in the first round now that they won’t be playing as much of a switch-heavy defense as the Rockets. If the Nuggets do opt to switch so that Davis isn’t marauding in the paint and James isn’t driving with a head full of steam, it will create mismatches that either of the two stars can exploit.
James will understand this and as he’s shown all playoffs, he will pick and choose his moments of pure aggression where it seems no one can still come close to slowing him down. The Nuggets will have to send help and at that point, it’s up to the Lakers shooters – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and company – to knock down open looks.
This is a tremendous matchup for the Lakers. You could argue they have the two best players in the series (I think the Davis vs. Jokic debate is mostly up to personal preference) in their All-NBA stars. They have multiple options to defend Jokic without sending additional help. They have been prepared through defending Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and James Harden to come up with the best gameplan to slow down the scorching hot Murray. They have the matchup advantage with LeBron and, while it’s fair to wonder how much regular-season matchups matter in a playoff setting, Davis’ dominance in four games against Denver should not be ignored.
All that said, there is a reason the Nuggets are in the conference finals (aside from the Clippers being exactly who we thought they were). They are well-coached, resilient, hardened by experience, and have a whole lot of talent from the top to the bottom of the roster. No matter what advantages we perceive the Lakers to have, this will not be a cakewalk and should not be treated as one.
Fortunately, the Lakers will not play with their food.