The Los Angeles Lakers expected to be here. They have been title favorites since the season tipped off. LeBron James personally and the Lakers as an organization are used to this spotlight.
Nobody expected the Denver Nuggets to be here. Their coaches and players will say they did, but they were pretty much alone on that island.
After two dramatic comebacks from 3-1 down in a series, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets have earned their shot at the big dog, LeBron and the Lakers. It’s the Western Conference Finals, and while maybe not the one everyone expected, it is an interesting one none-the-less. Game 1 tips off on Friday.
Can Denver pull off another big upset of a Los Angeles team? Here are five critical areas to watch this series (with a prediction thrown in at the end).
1) Who do the Lakers have to cover Jamal Murray?
After a series where he felt smothered by long, athletic, aggressive Clippers defenders, Jamal Murray broke out in Game 7 with 40 points (when the Clippers had to focus more on Jokic). Murray looked like the dangerous, aggressive three-level scorer he had been against Utah — the guy he’s going to need a for Denver to have a chance this series.
The Lakers have natural matchups and have had success going against Jokic (more on that coming, keep reading), but with Avery Bradley choosing to sit out the restart, the Lakers don’t have an obvious, natural defender for Murray. During the regular-season meetings, Murray was right about at his season scoring average against the Lakers (although he struggled from three), but in the playoffs he has stepped up his game. And his three-ball has been falling.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have seen top guards all playoffs long — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, James Harden, Russell Westbrook — and every one of them saw their scoring average drop against a Lakers team playing the best defense of any West team in the bubble. In the case of Murray, expect Frank Vogel to go with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and some quickness to pressure the ball out top — take the three away and force Murray to drive into help, where the Laker length and sharp defensive rotations can make him less efficient.
If Denver is going to pull the upset, Murray will have to break through that and look like the guy who tormented Utah in the first round.
2) Who wins Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis and the Lakers’ centers matchup?
With all due respect to Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic is the best offensive center in the game today. His ability to shoot the three makes Denver a team that can play five-out and keep the paint clear for penetration. He can score in the post, has a midrange game, and (no matter what Mark Jackson says on the broadcast) is the best passing big man the game has ever seen. Denver’s players make smart cuts and move off the ball when Jokic has it at the elbow because they know they will be rewarded. Jokic is the fulcrum of the offense and deserved his All-NBA nod.
The Lakers match up relatively well here. They have the defenders to slow Jokic down and did so in the regular-season meetings. Laker coach Frank Vogel has said he would go back to more of his traditional centers — whether that both JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, or just McGee to start remains to be seen — but he knows as a backup he has an elite defender in Anthony Davis. It worked during the regular season when the Lakers held Jokic three points below his season scoring average and cut his rebounds down as well.
Most importantly, Davis and his ability to hit the three will draw Jokic out of the paint and force him to defend on the perimeter, where Jokic can still be exploited. Davis also can go right at the Denver big man and get him in foul trouble.
As great as Jokic is, this is potentially an Anthony Davis series, where he is the most dominant player on the court. If that happens, Denver is in real trouble.
3) How will Denver’s defense hold up when the Lakers go mismatch hunting?
Denver’s defense in the playoffs has been solid, their rim protection improved from the regular season, but it has flaws. Jokic is not great on the perimeter. Michael Porter Jr., for all his athleticism and a few defensive plays, gets lost on pick-and-roll defenses. Gary Harris can be exploited in the pick-and-roll.
For reasons nobody understands — least of all their fans — the Clippers rarely attacked those mismatches. The playoffs are supposed to be about matchups, but the Clippers just kept doing their regular-season thing.
LeBron James will hunt mismatches. Mercilessly.
So will Rajon Rondo and the rest of the Lakers. Denver will likely start with Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap on LeBron, with a heavy dose of Torrey Craig off the bench, but LeBron and Davis are going to run pick-and-rolls and force Jokic to switch (a win for Los Angeles) or show out and recover (also a win for Los Angeles with Davis’ skill and LeBron’s passing). The Lakers are not going to let Jokic play back and clog the paint. Also, look for the Lakers to get Murray switched on to LeBron, then send LeBron to the post — the Lakers’ star is elite there, Murray is overmatched.
Porter Jr. will not be able to hide on the court — when he’s not defending a pick-and-roll on-ball he will be dealing with pin-downs and other off-ball actions chasing Kyle Kuzma around. If he loses focus (as he tends to do), the Lakers will torch him.
Denver’s defense has been good in the playoffs, but it has to be much better in this series to have a chance.
4) Can the Nuggets keep LeBron and the Lakers out of transition?
Pace is something to watch this series. No team added more points per 100 possessions through transition this season than the Lakers, and the Lakers have started a higher percentage of their offense in transition than any other team in the playoffs (16.5% of their plays start that way, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Denver has been an improved halfcourt defense this postseason, but their transition defense is the worst of any of the teams left in the dance.
Despite the odd Jokic football outlet pass (a true thing of beauty), Denver wants to slow the game down. If the Lakers get stops then fast buckets going the other way — with LeBron leading the break like a freight train —the Nuggets will struggle to keep up on the scoreboard.
5) Who will dominate points in the paint?
If there is one stat to track this series, points in the paint — or, better yet, shots at the rim — is it.
The postseason Lakers have been in attack mode: Los Angeles has taken a higher percentage of its shots at the rim than any team in the playoffs. By far. Denver allows shots at the rim in the playoffs but has done a better job contesting (teams shoot 63% against Denver in the restricted area in the playoffs, which is about the league average). However, the Nuggets have not had to face a team yet that attacks the rim with finishers like LeBron and Davis.
Go back and watch the regular-season meetings between these teams, and the Lakers owned the Nuggets at the rim. Denver has to keep the Lakers out of the paint. It’s just not that easy to do.
Prediction: Lakers in five. Denver has impressed these playoffs and deserves to be mentioned with the league’s elite, but Los Angeles is a bad matchup for them. LeBron can have all the coffee he wants — he is a closer of the highest order. The Nuggets can’t fall behind in this series and bounce back.