After a long and interesting season, the NBA is now down to four teams in the bubble. Once again, the Western Conference has shown its heavy competitive nature with a David-Goliath type matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and red-hot Denver Nuggets.
Similar to the second round, the Lakers patiently waited for their Western Conference finals opponent after knocking out the Houston Rockets in five games.
The Nuggets are coming off another 3-1 deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round. The basketball world anticipated a battle of Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals. However, a hungry Nuggets’ firepower became too much for the Clippers to hold onto. Now, they look to continue their mission in a rematch of the 2009 Western Conference Finals. Los Angeles won in six and later the NBA Finals.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets
Regular Season Series
The Lakers won the regular series 3-1 (see the pattern and theme here?) with a 9-point victory on Dec. 3, a 4-point overtime win on Feb. 12, and a 3-point win in the bubble, thanks to Kyle Kuzma‘s game-winning three-pointer over Bol Bol.
Winning a regular series over an opponent is a nice achievement, but when breaking down the numbers, one can see that those victories did not come easy for Los Angeles. In four games, only one was decided by double digits: the Nuggets’ 28-point victory on Dec. 22, when LeBron James sat out due to injury.
Once again, the Lakers earned themselves another long rest period as the Nuggets forced a Game 7 against the Clippers. So far, they have not been lucky in Game 1’s of the postseason. However, the rest has proved to benefit the Lakers throughout the series.
The difference? Denver was not expected to defeat the Clippers in the second round, especially from a 3-1 deficit. In other words, the Lakers have to be ready for the Nuggets’ surging offense this series.
The Lakers’ success throughout the season and even the playoffs, is the All-NBA First Team duo of James and Anthony Davis. Their elite offense lies behind their offense in the paint. According to nba.com, the Lakers have outscored their opponents in the paint by 13.0 points per game, the biggest differential in the postseason. This is due to the backcourt’s ability to pass down low to Davis and James’ “bully ball” aggression when driving to the basket.
Denver’s frontcourt and offense are heavily run through Nikola Jokić, who is averaging 25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game during the postseason. Jokić is a phenomenal passer and scorer, which makes him arguably the most efficient center in the league. However, unlike their Los Angeles neighbor, the Lakers have the personnel to defend him. Do not expect the Lakers to heavily rely on small ball in this series. The Rockets’ style of play was a unique small ball, run-and-gun offense. The Nuggets are more traditional and slow-paced due to their strong passing abilities.
In addition, the Lakers have another advantage. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are well rested due to their low minutes against Houston. They both have the length to defend one-on-one with Jokić, making it harder to kick or fade out to Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, and Michael Porter Jr. Veteran Paul Millsap is also a player to watch, along with Porter Jr., who has been surging in the bubble. He averaged 22 points per game during the eight seeding games. However, the Lakers’ length and defensive quickness should limit the 7-footer and the rest of Denver’s frontcourt.
Advantage – Los Angeles Lakers
Jokić’s three-point shooting (44 percent) during the postseason could force the Lakers’ bigs to close out and open the lane for Denver’s backcourt, especially for Jamal Murray. Murray’s hot shooting streak will have a huge impact on the Nuggets. He only shot 15.8 percent behind the arcs against the Lakers in the regular season. However, his game has quickly surged within the last two months in the bubble and is now shooting 49.1 percent from three-point land. At 23 years old, he became the second-youngest player in NBA history to drop 40 points in a Game 7. James holds the record.
Harris has been efficient on both offense and defense. In addition to his 42.9 percent shooting from the field, he has accounted for 36 percent of Denver’s steals, the second-highest rate in the postseason (nba.com). Monte Morris has surged off the bench, averaging 8.5 points per game off 47 percent from the field during postseason play.
For the Lakers, the starting backcourt of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green have stepped up and improved their three-point shooting during the Rockets’ series. Alex Caruso does not fill up the stats sheet but has been a significant piece of the Lakers’ defense due to his ability to close out on shooters and play strong man-to-man defense. The question is if Rajon Rondo can continue his success in the postseason. Despite not playing since March, he is averaging 10.6 points off 51.2 percent shooting, 7.0 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. If he remains healthy and continues his disruptive perimeter defense, especially against Murray, the Lakers have a shot. However, Murray’s emergence as a young star easily tops the Lakers’ backcourt.
Advantage – Denver Nuggets
NBA Playoffs Preview: Coaching and Intangibles
Both teams are built through a solid coaching staff and head coaches, which is a big key to success in sports at all levels. Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel has a .535 winning percentage in his nine-year head coaching career. He also reached the Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers in 2013 and 2014. Asides from his statistics, he brought a new defensive-minded approach to Los Angeles and successfully led his coaching staff to implement a quick change to small ball during the second round. That is not an easy task to do at any level, but especially in the NBA playoffs, when you only have over a day to prepare for the next game.
On the other hand, Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone has his share of success. In his five seasons with the Nuggets, he has earned a 401-219 record. In 2019, he led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Semifinals, losing to the Portland Trailblazers in seven games. Malone’s intensity has helped the Nuggets push through back-to-back 3-1 deficits and threw defensive adjustments that threw off the Clippers.
The Lakers have an advantage with their six-day rest period, but the Nuggets have not shown any fatigue despite the short break in-between rounds. The key is if Kuzma can continue to excel as a two-way player as he has in the bubble. The Nuggets also quickly made defensive adjustments and even improved since the first round. This is a close matchup, but the Lakers have a slight edge simply due to their success in making drastic adjustments in their system.
Advantage – Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Playoffs Preview Prediction – Los Angeles Lakers in Seven Games
This series will be the Lakers’ biggest challenge thus far because of the Nuggets’ red hot success in the postseason. The Lakers were able to knock out elite duos of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, along with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. However, Denver has grit, heart, talent, and are on a mission. The other teams also had it, but the Nuggets’ success is incomparable. Both teams will go back and forth, but James’s experience could be too much for Denver. If the Lakers are as disciplined on defense as previous rounds and continue to hit their shots, they will advance to the Finals for a chance at Championship #17.
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