Even though this series is a repeat of the 2020 Western Conference Finals from the fringe, both teams are significantly different, making it difficult to gauge how it will play out.
Even the games this season are meaningless. Before the NBA trade deadline, when the Lakers reorganized their roster, they played each other four times during the regular season. In terms of forecasting what will occur beginning Tuesday night in the Mile High City, those games are virtually meaningless. The Nuggets had at that point fled and hidden from the rest of the West, let their foot off the gas, and coasted in, all the while keeping the No. 1 seed, while the Lakers had the best record in the West after the All-Star break (16-7) while the Lakers had the best record overall. They have ramped up their game and played well in the playoffs.
Here are four things to watch, along with some betting tips from NBC Sports Edge’s Vaughn Dalzell.
1) Nikola Jokić vs. Anthony Davis
This series will likely be decided by the duel between the two best big men still on the field for the most of the games.
Joki, who averages 30.7 points, a 62.6 true shooting %, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.7 assists per game, has been a force in these playoffs. The Lakers must contain Joki because if they allow him to be a scorer and a creator, they will lose, as Draymond Green properly stated on his podcast. Joki put up stats in the bubble with 21.8 points and five assists per game for Davis and the Lakers, but it wasn’t enough.
The Lakers won’t be able to replicate their success on the bubble, though, for two reasons.
First, Joki is a better player now than he was three years ago, to start. He presents a far broader threat. The Lakers had other conventional bigs (Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee) who could body up Joki when he was on the bubble as well. However, AD currently handles a lot of it, and Joki has historically outclassed him.
Second, he is currently surrounded by shooters and cutters everywhere. Once assistance arrives, he will find the unguarded man. Denver’s shooters are hot, and there are no players to hide on, so the Lakers could be ready to put up with that. However, don’t compare the Nuggets to a Warriors club that struggled without Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson. Additionally, the Lakers had trouble in the opening minutes of Game 4 of the previous round when the Warriors began Gary Payton II. As a result, Davis had to guard Green and come out to the level of the ball on screens, and the Warriors later annihilated the Lakers with back cuts and accurate passing. The Nuggets consistently execute that, and they have a stronger roster than the Warriors this season.
Conversely, the Nuggets will struggle to stifle Davis and the Lakers’ offensive pressure.
LeBron will likely blast by Joki as the Lakers try to force Denver to switch, or they will have to deal with Davis as a roll man. Expect the Lakers to run a lot of pick-and-roll plays with Davis serving as the screener. With the addition of D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, and others, the Lakers suddenly have shooting everywhere. The Lakers are going to score. The issue is whether the Nuggets should play drop coverage, try to clog the lane despite their average rim protection, and let LeBron, Davis, and the rest of the team take their two-pointers in the hopes that they can solve the math problem by being a force on the offensive glass.
It’s a battle of strengths here: The Lakers have a league-best 106.5 defensive rating this postseason, while the Nuggets have the highest offensive rating in the league at 118.7. Which side wins that battle?
2) Which side is better at stopping dribble penetration?
Los Angeles is in risk if this turns into a Jamal Murray series.
Even after the trade deadline, the Lakers have had trouble stopping guard penetration, and Murray is playing much more like the Murray from before his injury bubble, slicing into the paint. Joki can shoot the three and would simply rip that defense apart, so Davis won’t be able to drop back in deep coverage.
This is not the Warriors, who have trouble consistently making 3-pointers, especially while playing away from home (the Warriors shot under 30% from 3-point range in the previous series). In the postseason, the Nuggets are shooting 37.9% from 3-point range, and all of their starters and rotation players are capable shooters. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Bruce Brown aren’t on the court, they will make the basket. In the postseason, Michael Porter Jr. is shooting more than 40% of his threes. Aaron Gordon is a threat. You see what I mean.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are unlike Phoenix, who had two players who could put the ball on the floor and make shots before doing nothing else. Reaves, Russell, and Dennis Schroder are all capable of creating shots for both themselves and other players. The Lakers will move the ball if the Nuggets have to help on LeBron and Davis, and their help defense is not the best in the NBA.
These playoffs have featured big performances from the Lakers’ supporting cast, and this series promises more of them.
3) Are the Nuggets equipped for such a scenario?
Basketball fans have had an attitude of “That’s nice, but you have to prove it in the playoffs” the whole season, even as the Nuggets sailed to the No. 1 seed in the West.
Denver has proven it after two rounds. They appear to be the greatest squad in the West as they reach the conference finals.
Presently LeBron James and the Lakers as a team have reached this point, the spotlight is brighter. LeBron likes stating that he and his teams are at ease with their discomfort.
They are going to play well.
Will Denver? What happens when they are in it? They appear to be prepared for this time. The Nuggets as a team aren’t used to being in this environment, and Joki and company only did it once during the bubble.
As sports fans, With performers and teams, we often turn to a “you can’t do it until you’ve done it”. Until we see a quarterback winning the Super Bowl, they cannot do so.
We are skeptical since we haven’t seen Denver perform at this NBA level. Are the Nuggets prepared to change that story?
4) Vaughn Dalzell’s Lakers vs. Nuggets betting tips
During this postseason, The Lakers are 7-0 at home, compared to the Nuggets’ 6-0 record. Seven games at +175 odds are the series favourites after taking that into account. The Lakers in 7 at +650 or Denver in 7 at +310 are both stronger bets since they provide bigger rewards and simple hedges.
Is the Denver Nuggets’ X-Factor Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP) for the series? KCP averaged 12.8 points per game in the NBA Finals and played a significant role in the Lakers’ 2019–20 championship squad. KCP averaged 10.5 points per game in the playoffs this year while playing for the Denver Nuggets.
5) Can LeBron and Davis sustain their success for a second series?
“I may have looked like I was conserving my energy but I was dead tired after every one of them games. Same with tonight,” LeBron said after the Lakers eliminated the Warriors in Game 6. “You know, you really don’t have the opportunity to conserve your energy versus a Golden State team because they always keep you on your heels.”
Between Friday’s win and Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday, LeBron and Anthony Davis had three days off. However, this series is now every other day and the first few games will be played at high altitude.
Although Davis has struggled at times this playoffs, the Lakers can’t afford to lose any games to the Nuggets. Although LeBron and Davis have shown resiliency and the ability to draw on reserves of energy when necessary, they will need more of it in this series because the Nuggets offense will put their defense to the test in a way that no other team has. Can LeBron and Davis continue to play strong for one more series? They haven’t lost their edge this postseason.
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