The Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets have had very different paths to the Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers started their bubble experience 3-5 in the eight seeding games and raising plenty of eyebrows along the way. Unfazed, they found their stride in the playoffs, taking down Portland and Houston in five games. In year 17, LeBron James is playing at the top of his game. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is dominating on both ends of the floor. The Lakers currently look better than ever.
The Nuggets had a better start in Orlando but found themselves down 3-1 in each of their two playoff series. No team had come back from multiple 3-1 deficits in the same postseason. However, the Nuggets were ready to make history. Jamal Murray led the way in round one. Denver rallied behind his historic scoring to capture three straight wins while facing elimination.
Then, against the heavily-favored Clippers, Murray, Nikola Jokic, and crew staged three second-half comebacks. They pulled off the biggest upset of recent memory. Murray and Jokic are a combined 46 years of age but are playing far beyond their years as one of the best duos in Orlando.
Denver’s upset victory over the Los Angeles Clippers robbed fans of the highly anticipated “Battle of LA.” Nonetheless, the series will feature an entertaining matchup between the 3-seed Nuggets and 1-seed Lakers. It’ll be their first playoff matchup since 2009, where the Kobe-led Lakers defeated the Carmelo-led Nuggets in six games.
The Lakers won the season series 3-1 against the Nuggets, but anything can happen in the 2020 playoffs. Here are four things to look out for in the series.
LA’s 3-Point Consistency
When the Lakers make their outside shots in the bubble, they’re nearly unstoppable.
The numbers hint that stable 3-point shooting is the key to Laker victories. In 11 bubble wins (regular season and playoffs), the Lakers shot an efficient 38.1% from the outside. In 7 bubble losses, that rate drops to an embarrassingly low 25.4%. The disparity is night and day.
There’s no question that a well-rested LeBron James and Anthony Davis tandem will thrive in this series. But the catch-and-shoot efficiency from the outside isn’t necessarily a given with LA.
If it’s consistent, it’ll put the Lakers over the top. They don’t even need to make 20 3-pointers like the Rockets. All they need is efficiency on decent volume. With LeBron James facilitating and Anthony Davis drawing double teams, open shots from role players will be available. If those shots fall, the series will be over quickly.
But if the shooting is inconsistent, a Denver upset isn’t out of the picture. Denver will be able to sag off of shooters and clog the lanes. That will prevent inside buckets from LeBron and AD.
Jamal Murray’s Streakiness
No player has taken a more significant leap in the 2020 playoffs than Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray. He’s hit numerous clutch shots, became one of four players to score 50 points twice in the same series, and flat-out upped his play to the next level.
Murray has scored 30 points in five 2020 playoff games, suitable enough for third best. But the good has come with some bad. He’s also dipped below 20 points six times during the Nuggets’ wild run. In those six games, he shot a horrid 35% from the field.
Such occasional struggles weren’t so costly against the Jazz and Clippers, but the Lakers are different. Star center Nikola Jokic will have a much harder time alleviating Murray’s struggles against Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Anthony Davis. Denver likely won’t be able to rely on Jokic’s scoring nearly as much as they did in the Clippers series.
Additionally, LA’s defense on elite scoring guards has been spectacular in this year’s playoffs, even without go-to perimeter defender Avery Bradley. They put an end to Damian Lillard’s historic hot streak and executed a brilliant game plan against scoring champion James Harden. They’ll look to do the same against Murray, whose heavy offensive usage means he needs to step up big for the Nuggets to have any chance.
The Importance of Anthony Davis
The story of several LeBron James-led playoff runs has been his lack of help. The issue plagued his title chances in his first stint in Cleveland. Then in 2015, he faced the Warriors without Kyrie Irving & Kevin Love and again in 2018 against the superteam Warriors.
Davis has complemented LeBron incredibly well in their first season together, particularly in the playoffs. The two are averaging over 26 points and ten rebounds in the postseason.
However, Davis’ impact is far more significant than his numbers suggest. One could argue that Davis has been an essential part of LA’s impressive playoff run to this point. He’s done an excellent defensive job on several different positions and has continuously displayed his incredible offensive skill as an interior scorer and mid-range shot creator. There are few players of AD’s size in the game’s history that could do what he’s doing right now.
Davis will be more critical to the Lakers’ success in this specific series. As said earlier, he’s a capable defender on Nikola Jokic, whom no team has had much of an answer for over the last two series. A Nuggets team without the Joker dominating on the offensive end is far less dangerous than the contrary, and it’s made all the more possible by Davis’ defensive presence.
AD’s offensive value is also just as profound. He’s nearly unguardable, and the Nuggets don’t have a legitimate answer to his offensive game. Jokic can be a defensive liability, and other Nuggets defenders are too small or too slow for Davis. He averaged 29.3 points on 54.4% shooting in four matchups with the Nuggets this season. Denver might have no choice but to double team him.
The NBA is a star-driven league, and this series is a prime example as to why. Both teams got to this point thanks to their star duos stepping up in big-time moments. They will dictate the outcome of this series.
With that said, each squad’s role players shouldn’t be overlooked, seeing as how meaningful their contributions have been to their respective teams this postseason.
For the Lakers, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso will be among those tasked with guarding Jamal Murray, arguably the Nuggets’ biggest X-Factor. And although there was a concern over who would step up as the Lakers’ third scorer, the timely play of several support players has put that uncertainty to rest, for now. Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Rondo, and Caruso have all made the most of their enhanced postseason roles. Along with Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they could be called on even more if the Nuggets double LeBron and AD.
The Nuggets also have plenty of depth to go with Murray and Jokic. Despite his off-court controversy, Michael Porter Jr. is one of the most talented young players. He can help carry the scoring load in a series where his star teammates face enormous defensive challenges. There’s also talented backup point guard Monte Morris, who brings an extra scoring spark off the bench. And perhaps most importantly, Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, and Torrey Craig proved their defensive worth in the Clippers series and formed a trio of solid wing defenders that can alternate on LeBron James.
The Prediction: Lakers in 6
The Nuggets are a dangerous team without any fear whatsoever. The victory over the Clippers was no accident and showed just how great they could be. The Lakers can’t take them lightly.
But the Lakers are the Lakers. They’re playing their best basketball at just the right time and have the two best players remaining in the playoffs. LeBron James is a man on a mission with ring number four in mind.
LA’s chemistry, versatility, and newfound depth will prove too much for a Nuggets team that has already played a grueling 14 playoff games to LA’s 10.
The 3-ball will fall just enough for the Lakers to take this series in six games and head to their first NBA Finals since 2010.