Every team that grows organically over a few years and suddenly finds itself on the doorstep of the championship round must awaken the morning before and stare at the mirror and ask itself this question: Are you just happy to be here? Do you feel that you truly belong?
That might be a strange way for the plucky Nuggets to approach their first Western Conference finals appearance in 11 years; after all, Denver did just eliminate the No. 2 seed Clippers and showed much basketball courage and swagger by rallying from a pair of 3-1 deficits and winning a pair of Game 7s in these playoffs. They are nobody’s surprise team; up until the All-Star break, they had the second-best record in the West. Still, how much do they have left in the tank after this thrilling yet exhausting ride in Orlando? Isn’t the next step tricky? And that is LeBron James and Anthony Davis blocking the path, isn’t it?
LeBron, AD and the Lakers were the boss in the West all season and have not had to labor nearly as much as the Nuggets in this restart. Also, for what it’s worth, the Lakers do bring 16 championships while the Nuggets have zero NBA titles. Basically, this is old hat for LeBron and the Lakers franchise; for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and the Nuggets, this is a new and forbidding world they’re about to enter. Here in what qualifies as a solid and gradual ascent among the elite teams in the NBA, Denver simply hasn’t paid its championship dues yet, which is usually a requirement before any title hopeful can cash in.
So maybe it’s best they keep embracing the let’s-have-fun approach and stay loose. They know all the urgency is on LeBron and the favored Lakers. They know they’re playing with house money at this point. Why change mindsets now, even if they could?
Besides, there’s a reason the Lakers aren’t expected to stumble. The cohesion between their two superstars is airtight. They’ve lost only twice in eight games in the postseason and closed out two series in emphatic style. This conference championship, much like the just-concluded Nuggets-Clippers series, will be more of a referendum on the Lakers than anything. It’s theirs to lose.
Three things to watch
1.What are the biggest mismatches? The safe assumption is Jokic and Davis will cancel each other out; both are skilled big men who do their damage differently yet their impact is the same level -- severe. The obvious problem for the Nuggets is LeBron and for the Lakers it’s Murray. Neither team has a logical defensive answer for either. Denver will offer Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant and in some instances maybe Michael Porter Jr., but none are known for being shutdown defenders. Meanwhile, the Lakers will hope aging Rajon Rondo can negate some of Murray’s quickness. Both are tall orders; LeBron is averaging nearly a triple-double in the playoffs and remains at peak form, while Murray has a pair of 50-pieces and is using this postseason to gradually grow into a superstar.
2. Will the Lakers have a 3-point problem? This was a very big concern early in the playoffs, yet the Lakers stabilized and therefore rolled through the first two rounds after first-game stumbles. That’s fine ... but it’s still their main weakness and now they’ll see a Nuggets’ team that offers better defenders than the Blazers or Rockets. The Nuggets rotate well and bring reinforcements off the bench in case of foul trouble. If the Nuggets can play LeBron and AD straight-up on several possessions and keep the Lakers shooters such as Danny Green covered, that might create suspense in the series. It’s really their best strategy.
3. Can Porter Jr. be the third wheel the Nuggets will need? The series will demand a bonus player from either team to surface and deliver in at least a few games. The logical candidate for the Lakers is Kyle Kuzma, but he’s been mild overall and averaging just 11 points. There will be great interest, however, in Porter, whose best attribute is that he doesn’t appeared awed by the situation despite being in his first true season. Porter brings size and shooting range to the mix and also the confidence to insert himself in fourth-quarter moments. The Nuggets are already drawing plays for Porter; is he able to develop enough faith in coach Mike Malone to be on the floor when it counts? That will determine his worth in this series.
The number to know
28.3 -- The Lakers outscored the Nuggets by 28.3 points per 100 possessions in a little more than 56 minutes with Anthony Davis at center (no JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor) in the regular season series. Those 56 minutes accounted for just 38% of the 150 minutes Davis played against Denver.
In his other 94 minutes (when Davis played alongside McGee or Howard), the Lakers were outscored by 9.7 points per 100 possessions. The bigger difference was on defense, where the Lakers allowed just 97 points per 100 possessions with Davis playing center. In 33 minutes with Nikola Jokic on the floor against Davis at center, the Lakers were a plus-22 and the Nuggets scored just 60 points on 66 possessions (91 per 100).
After playing just 41% of his minutes at the five against Portland in the first round, Davis played 84% of his minutes at the five against Houston in the conference semis. Through two rounds (and as was the case in the regular season), the Lakers have been better offensively with Davis at the four, but better defensively with him at the five.
-- John Schuhmann
This is perhaps the best chance for LeBron, now 35, to win a title with the Lakers. He doesn’t have to go through the Clippers or the Bucks. Next season, not only will those and the other current title contenders remain intact for the most part, but the Nets and Warriors will be retooled and ready to be thrown into the mix as well. Therefore, LeBron for those reasons should be the most motivated player on the floor, bringing a sense of urgency. That doesn’t necessarily translate into victory and a happy ending, though. He’ll need at least a few blockbuster performances from his tag-team partner, Davis. That’s because the Nuggets are bringing good flow and the belief that anything’s possible; their 6-0 record in elimination games is sufficient evidence of that. But the Nuggets’ depth must show up for this to be a surprise series. Lakers in six.
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