The Los Angeles Lakers’ road to redemption continues after they knocked off the defending-champion Golden State Warriors in six games, punctuated by a 122-101 victory that told Steph Curry “night night.”
Now, L.A. enters familiar territory against an equally familiar foe, squaring off against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals for the third time in 14 years (previously 2009 and 2020). The Lakers also enter on the right side of history, becoming the second team since the 1987 Seattle Supersonics to make the Western Conference Finals as a no. 7 seed. With two strong rosters each with something to prove, here are three aspects that the Lakers must capitalize on if they want to continue their title run.
Three Difference-Makers for the Lakers to Take Out the Denver Nuggets
1. Contain Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
The top-seeded Nuggets have found success through their dynamic duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, two stars who are hungry to prove their doubters wrong. For Jokic, the two-time MVP couldn’t three-peat, but he has continued to stay aggressive with premier postseason performances. Murray has set out to show that his run in the 2020 playoffs wasn’t a fluke, as encapsulated in various high-scoring affairs of his own, including a 34-point series opener against the Suns in game one.
With this in mind, the Lakers must do what has given them success in previous rounds: contain opposing stars and force the role players to step up. Three seasons ago, the Lakers won the series by limiting Murray and Jokic in terms of scoring, holding them to 25 and 21.8 points per game, respectively. That task, while still attainable, could be a little more difficult now.
Jokic and Murray have caught fire in the 2023 postseason, averaging 30.7 and 25.9 points per game, respectively. The Lakers have some effective players who can counter them, namely Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Dennis Schröder, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Aside from the obvious James-Davis duo, Schröder and Vando have been known to hold down the opposing stars, and it will be crucial for success in this series. There’s also a chance that Mo Bamba could get minutes, assuming he returns from a lingering ankle sprain. Limiting Jokic and Murray’s offensive opportunities is paramount if the Lakers want to prevail in the conference finals.
2. Get the Supporting Cast Rolling Early
Once again, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Lakers’ role players have answered the call in the playoffs so far, and they’re needed now more than ever in the Western Conference Finals. Players such as Schröder, Vanderbilt, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, and D’Angelo Russell have thrived under the bright lights, and their contributions only become magnified from here. It’s little things, such as Russell’s transition threes or Schröder’s quick-twitch defense, that gets the team going, and they all serve as key reasons why the Lakers have gotten to this point.
There are also players such as Lonnie Walker IV, who has quickly turned into a success story of staying ready for the playoffs. Walker, who had started 32 regular season games, fell out of the rotation as the season went on, and a knee injury prolonged his absence. He has now found his groove in the postseason, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Walker was clutch in game four against the Warriors, going off for 15 points–all in the fourth quarter. He continued his impressive run, posting 13 points (including three triples) in the closeout game six against the defending champs. It’s players like him who will need to thrive in their roles as the lights become brighter, and there’s no doubt that everyone behind James and Davis can do so.
Defense Wins Championships
As talented as the supporting cast is offensively, they’ll need to do most of the dirty work on defense, preventing Denver’s role players from breaking out. The Nuggets’ roster has changed since the last time these teams met, with Denver trading Jerami Grant and Monte Morris while adding Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown, and (former Laker) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Those players have stepped up even when Jokic and Murray were going off. In these playoffs, Gordon has averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game while shooting 38% from three. Brown has averaged 12.2 points per game while averaging 1.3 steals defensively. And old friend KCP has done his job in Denver, posting 10.5 points per game on 47% shooting from the field and 39% from three while going for 1.4 steals a night.
If the purple and gold want to gain the upper hand, it will be a team effort on both sides of the ball. Their three-point shooting and perimeter defense will also be key. The Nuggets are shooting nearly 38% from deep in the playoffs to the Lakers’ 33%, and both teams have the talent to get hot from three in a hurry. The Lakers’ supporting cast has to look for and convert easy looks offensively while holding their own defensively, things they’ve done all postseason long. At the same time, they will also have to fly on the wings of a pair of championship-tested superstars.
3. Dynamic Duo Domination
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are no strangers to this stage, and they have another chance at glory after everything that transpired in a rocky regular season.
The two have played like the championship-caliber players they are. James has put up 23.4 points, 10 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game on 49-26-76 splits in his 16th postseason at age 38. Davis, perhaps fueled by the denial of an All-Star selection, All-NBA nod, and the Defensive Player of the Year award (all arguments for another day), has come out with a vengeance. He has averaged 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds (career-high), and 3.3 blocks (another career-high) per game while shooting 53% from the field and 83% from the charity stripe.
In the regular season series against Denver, which ended in a 2-2 split, the duo played three of the four contests. LeBron averaged 25 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7 assists per game, while Davis averaged 18.3 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists. LeBron led the Lakers in scoring in their two victories, posting 26 points on Oct. 30 and 30 points on Dec. 16. AD also contributed 23 points and 15 rebounds in the team’s 121-110 October victory.
It goes without saying that those two will be critical in the upcoming series, just as they have been throughout LA’s storied playoff run. Their knowledge and experience against the Nuggets in a playoff setting is the biggest factor–and a key advantage–when considering that the current group has only had three months to gel. As always, the Lakers will need everything LeBron and AD have to offer against the number one seed in the West, leading the purple and gold as they strive for banner no. 18.
The Last Word on Lakers vs. Nuggets
The Western Conference Finals will be a battle between the number one seed with something to prove and a championship-laden franchise coming in as the underdog. Expect the stars to shine brightly while the role players step up.
If the Lakers stick to these keys and follow the game plan of Head Coach Darvin Ham, they’ll live to keep their hopes of another title alive. To quote ESPN Los Angeles’s Instagram post, the Lakers have gone “From 8 games below .500 to 8 wins away from [being crowned] World Champions.”