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Western Conference Finals preview: Nuggets-Lakers

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The Battle for L.A. isn’t going to happen, but for Kentucky fans, this is the preferred result.

Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets did something no other team has done in the 74-year history of the NBA: overcome a 3-1 series deficit twice during the same postseason. Their prize wound up being a date with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Western Conference’s top overall seed, the Los Angeles Lakers. Since we can’t go ahead and fast forward to a week from now, when the Nuggets are inevitably trailing 3-1 in this series, let’s preview how we’ll likely get there. This isn’t the cross-street “rivalry” many hoped for, but this matchup will absolutely produce some aesthetically-pleasing, high-scoring basketball games.


WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: (1) LAKERS VS. (3) NUGGETS

Offensive rating in playoffs: LAL – 114.4 | DEN – 112.5

Defensive rating in playoffs: LAL – 105.4 | DEN – 114.0

Net rating in playoffs: LAL – 9.0 (leads NBA) | DEN – -1.5

3PT percentage in playoffs: LAL – 35.9% | DEN – 39.1%

Turnovers per game in playoffs: LAL – 16.1 | DEN – 13.3

Which Nuggets team will show up early

We can joke all we want, but would we all seriously expect the Denver Nuggets to somehow comeback down 3-1 for a third time, this one against LeBron and the Lakers? Doing so against the Utah Jazz was somewhat believable, and then following it up against the Los Angeles Clippers was stunning and unprecedented. But coming back down 3-1 against this Lakers squad would complete the most difficult single postseason run throughout NBA Playoff history, regardless of what happens in the NBA Finals. So how does Denver combat that? It’s quite the simple concept, actually: give yourself a chance to win every game.

Against the Jazz in round one, two of Denver’s losses came in the form of 19- and 37-point drummings. The Nugs dropped Game 1 against the Clippers by 23 points and only managed to put up 85 points in the Game 4 loss. Staying in games early will be key to hopefully avoiding another 3-1 series situation. They have shown throughout the first two rounds that their star players can win games down the stretch, but that won’t matter nearly as much if they’re down 20 points to start the fourth quarter. While Denver managed a few improbable comebacks near the end of the series against the Clippers, it’s tough to bank on the Lakers succumbing to a similar all-around collapse.

The Lakers have been the highest-scoring first half team during the playoffs, averaging more than 61 points through the first 24 minutes compared to Denver’s 53.3 points. The Nuggets have to find a way to prevent L.A. from going on significant runs throughout the early stages of the game. Thus far in the playoffs, the Lakers have been mauling opponents through the first three quarters and haven’t had to overexert themselves in the fourth due to blowout wins or comfortable late leads. Denver, on the other hand, tends to play its best basketball late in the affair; they average 28.2 points in the final period and shoot nearly 48 percent from the floor during the postseason compared to the Lakers’ 24.1. If they can get themselves in a position to win the game, the Nuggets will be better prepared than most for a back-and-forth showdown in the closing minutes.

Denver has put on consistent display throughout the Bubble that they don’t get tired, while the Lakers haven’t necessarily been challenged in that aspect quite yet; it could give the Nuggets a slight advantage when dealing with late-game situations. If L.A. has shown once weakness through two rounds, it’s been their lack of discipline when making the smart play. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder have been worse in terms of turnovers and turnover percentage during the playoffs than the Lakers. Denver hasn’t exactly been a sparkly picture of perfection on the defensive end, but they have capable wing defenders in Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, and Torrey Craig who can make life difficult for the Lakers’ questionable backcourt. If Denver can wear out the Lakers and force them into mistakes late, a window of opportunity will present itself.

Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokic

This is easily the matchup to watch for this series. Eyes might be locked in on LeBron James and Jamal Murray (who we’ll get to more in just a minute) but the deciding factors of this series will be between Anthony Davis and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.

In many ways, these two players are quite similar: they can score from all areas of the floor, alter the entire gravity of how the opposition plays defense, handle the ball exceptionally for big men, and are multiple-time All-Stars with future Hall-of-Fame careers. And yet, they play completely different styles of basketball; one was a No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky while the other went No. 41 after establishing his career in Serbia. Davis is the thinner, more agile prospect with an all-around offensive game and an elite defensive profile. Jokic is the plump, flat-footed passing genius with the shooting to match and on-court intelligence that rivals NBA greats such as Chris Paul and Steve Nash. They are the perfect matchup for national television.

Let’s compare some per game playoff averages, shall we?

Davis: 27.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 2.6 turnovers
Jokic: 25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 3.5 turnovers

Shooting splits (FG%/3PT/FT%) along with the number of attempts per game.

Davis: 58.6/39.1/75.0 – 16.9/2.3/9.2
Jokic: 51.5/44.0/83.0 – 19.0/6.0/3.8

Overall, their stats match up rather closely. We should keep in mind that Jokic has played four more games (14) compared to Davis (10), but if anything, it makes Jokic’s numbers appear slightly more reliable. We can also immediately identify some differences in their styles just from these stats. Davis likes to live at the free-throw line, consistently attacking the paint or even hunting mid-range opportunities as opposed to outside looks. Meanwhile, Jokic makes his living operating in the high post where he can best maneuver within the offense and locate cutting teammates. As a result, he chucks up a few more triples per night than Davis, but he’s been nailing them all playoffs long. Jokic isn’t going to get to the charity stripe with the ferocity of Davis, who will constantly test Jokic on the other end as the Nuggets’ final line of defense at the rim. And that’s where the conversation becomes one-sided–Davis is an elite rim protector while Jokic is below-average at best.

I would bet that Jokic has success against the Lakers’ defense if only because he will force Davis to defend outside of the paint more than he’d like. L.A. can employ the services of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee if necessary, considering they were essentially useless against the Houston Rockets in the previous round, so the coaching staff could potentially combat that issue by utilizing them more often. However, Jokic shouldn’t have much of an issue passing around McGee or Howard, and Davis should be the primary defender on Jokic throughout the series (at least he should in my opinion). Davis is much more adept at defending Jokic in the post and on the perimeter with the speed and quickness to recover if the Denver offense is moving the ball well.

Davis should have a field day against the Nuggets backline, particularly when Jokic is in the game. Denver has a defensive rating of 117.1 when Jokic is in the game compared to a much more impressive figure of 99.3 when backup center Mason Plumlee is on the court. While Jokic’s offensive production is about as elite as you can buy, his defense has become somewhat of a liability. The Jazz and Clippers didn’t have a big man with scoring capabilities like Davis. Jokic is going to be tested in a way he hasn’t yet in the Bubble.

Jamal Murray’s attacking mindset

I’ve been preaching it for weeks and I’m not going silent now: the Nuggets are at their best when Jamal Murray is in all-out attack mode.

During Denver’s 14 playoff games, Murray has averaged 32.4 points in eight wins, but a staggering 20.0 in the team’s six losses. That’s a 12.4 point differential. He’s knocking down triples at a 53.8 percent clip (on 8.1 attempts) in wins but only 31.4 percent (on two fewer looks!) in losses. It’s not even a secret anymore: The Nuggets play better when Murray plays better. They’re 1-5 when he fails to hit 20 points and 7-1 when he tops it. He can’t continue to go back-and-forth as he has been. Denver needs 48 minutes every single night from Murray to have a shot in this series. He has been relentlessly hounded by the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neale, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley through the last two rounds. Going up against Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso is going to be a deep (and necessary) breath of fresh air.

More from Playoff Rondo?

It was easy to invest stock in Rajon “Playoff” Rondo for the series against the Rockets. The matchup against the Houston Rockets was one that he could thrive in. James Harden and Russell Westbrook aren’t exactly stalwarts on defense even if the Rockets did post an insanely impressive defensive rating before being eliminated. Rondo will have longer and more engaged defenders on him against the Nuggets and it’ll be a test on his decision making in the early stages. He wasn’t exactly reliable in that department against Houston, turning the ball over 13 times in five games, but if his hot shooting stretch can continue, he’ll be a valuable offensive piece for the Lakers. Rondo is 8-18 from beyond the arc in the playoffs so far.


Prediction: Lakers in 6

I’m seriously expecting this series to find it’s way to a 3-1 lead in favor of the Lakers (although it would be absolutely hilarious if the Nuggets were able to turn those table), but without the added drama. The Nuggets will steal back Game 5, keeping hope alive that they can pull off another unprecedented comeback, but the Lakers will close things out in six. It really comes down to my belief that the Lakers are far better suited to avoid a devastating breakdown like the Clippers did. Denver has proven twice now that they will capitalize on the advantage when they smell blood, but LeBron James doesn’t get cut often. It’s still going to be one hell of a series, especially if you enjoy dangerous offenses.

Tipoff for Game 1 is scheduled for Friday at 9:00 p.m. EST on TNT.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Recruiting reporter for KSR. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR