What a contrast, at least according to the standings: The top seed in the West versus a Play-In Tournament survivor. If we go strictly on that and nothing more, the Nuggets would be all but ticketed to the NBA Finals. But as we all know, the real state of the Western Conference finals is much deeper than that.
- Complete coverage: Lakers vs. Nuggets series
Give the Nuggets this: Denver avoided all the drama that dogged the Lakers for much of the season. The Nuggets didn’t deal with many injuries, kept their key pieces intact, had no reason to desperately seek help at the trade deadline and easily assumed home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by earning the best record in the West (and second-best home record in the league). Nikola Jokic nearly grabbed a third straight Kia NBA MVP and over the last few years has proven better — and definitely sturdier — than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. What about hungrier? Of the three players, he’s the one without a ring.
This rematch of the 2020 Western Conference finals played in the Orlando bubble brings those three stars together again. The Lakers then were the more poised and experienced and, quite frankly, the better team; LeBron was thirsty for another ring and AD for his first. The Nuggets now are much wiser from the experience and, as the top seed, have much to prove. They’ve never been to the Finals, let alone won an NBA title. They’re right at the doorstep again, but with LeBron standing in the way, does this really mean they’re any closer?
The Lakers can be classified as the team trending harder right now. Their postseason victories, over the No. 2 seed Grizzlies and defending champion Warriors, are more impressive than Denver’s run to this point. Simply put, L.A. is the tastier story, given where it’s been, with LeBron four games closer to his 11th Finals appearance.
None of that could matter. Each series and almost each game brings its own personality and problems and heroes and storylines. One thing’s for sure: This shouldn’t be a quick series. Give the Lakers and Nuggets that much respect.
Oct. 26: Nuggets 110, Lakers 99
Oct. 30: Lakers 121, Nuggets 110
Dec. 16: Lakers 126, Nuggets 108
Jan. 9: Nuggets 122, Lakers 109
3 things to watch
Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis. For the first time in these playoffs, these two elite big men will get a supreme test. They are different players with different body types and skill sets, but bring the same impact. In terms of worth to his team, let’s just say Jokic doesn’t have LeBron James riding with him. That puts a lot of pressure on Jokic to be the heavy in this matchup. Even though Davis is a terrific shot blocker, Jokic will make it tough on him in the post because of his ability to follow his own miss, and also his soft touch and footwork around the rim. But on defense, Jokic must be at his best against Davis, who can stretch the floor and clearly has an edge in athleticism. Overall, this isn’t a classic big-man matchup in the normal sense, but it’s an outstanding one nonetheless. Davis didn’t see anyone significant in the first round against Memphis with Steven Adams out or the Warriors, and Jokic was tested only a bit more against Rudy Gobert and Deandre Ayton. That changes for both this series.
LeBron’s stamina, Part III. The 38-year-old force of nature is once again on a deep postseason run and so far, so good. He has actually conquered three opponents so far: Memphis, Golden State and Father Time. LeBron was nearly flawless in the first two rounds, and the closer he gets to the championship trophy, the stronger his resolve will be. There’s a good chance the Nuggets will be the team that causes him the least problems. Denver doesn’t bring a defensive ace, certainly no one on the level of LeBron’s last two defenders, Dillon Brooks (laugh if you will but he made All-Defensive this year) and Andrew Wiggins. LeBron will get Aaron Gordon, a definite notch below, and if Gordon gets into foul trouble there’s no capable backup plan for Denver. If LeBron holds up physically in yet another series with only one day’s rest between games, and there’s no reason to think he won’t, he’ll have every reason to produce a strong series.
Bubble Murray revisited? Jamal Murray delivered a scorching playoff run in 2020 when, for roughly a month, he occupied a space enjoyed only by the very best in basketball. That’s how unstoppable he was at times on the Disney campus. His 50-piece duel with Donovan Mitchell in the first round against Utah was must-watch and his follow-ups against the Clippers and Lakers were solid. In all, Murray averaged 26.5 points, making half his shots and was a problem for everyone assigned to stop him. That said, it’s still his career highlight. Injuries certainly played a role in that (he missed an entire season-plus after knee surgery) and inconsistency has followed him since. He’s an unorthodox point guard who yields playmaking duties to Jokic and can be a streaky shooter at times. He’ll need to be at bubble peak to put the Lakers in a panic. The Lakers must respect him, but after trapping and harassing Steph Curry, a far greater threat, they’re well-prepared for the challenge.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nuggets. Hard to believe, but the Lakers threw him into the pile a few summers ago in their trade for … wait for it … Russell Westbrook. Well, well. KCP was one of the 2020 championship heroes for the Lakers when he consistently hit big shots against Miami to help win that series. He was loved by LeBron and Davis for his willingness to show up and show out. They missed KCP up until this February when the roster remake reduced his absence. Meanwhile, the Nuggets traded for him to bring championship experience, improve their perimeter defense and provide another shooter around Jokic. And for the most part, KCP has fulfilled those expectations. He falls too much in love with the 3-pointer at times, and probably lost a half-step defensively from a few years ago. But he’s here, and he’s playing against his former team, and he has every incentive to deliver a strong series. His defense against D’Angelo Russell could be crucial.
Number to know
118.7 — The Nuggets have scored 118.7 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds, the best mark for offensive efficiency in these playoffs. And they’ve scored that efficiently against two teams – Minnesota and Phoenix – that ranked in the top 10 defensively in the regular season.
The Lakers have allowed just 106.5 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds, the best mark for defensive efficiency in these playoffs. And they’ve been that good defensively against two teams – Memphis and Golden State – that ranked in the top 11 offensively in the regular season.
So it’s the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense, and the paint will be where both will be tested. Denver has taken 53% of its shots, the highest rate in the playoffs, in the paint, shooting 57.2% (sixth best) there. The Lakers, meanwhile, have allowed their opponents to shoot just 50.9% (second lowest) in the paint. That mark is just 47.9% with Anthony Davis on the floor.
— John Schuhmann
Three months ago the Nuggets were a strong favorite to reach the West finals as the soon-to-be top seed. Meanwhile, the Lakers were a mess. Then came the L.A. rebirth and here they are, the team that all of a sudden nobody wanted to play. Even during their tough times, the Lakers still had LeBron and AD; they just weren’t healthy. The whole league knew what L.A. was capable of doing once it regained health; as a bonus, the Lakers also jettisoned Russell Westbrook and the improvement began in earnest. While the Lakers’ rotational pieces have been better than expected and are more consistent than the Nuggets’ bench, this series really can, and probably should, come down to this: L.A. has two stars and the Nuggets one. Stars matter in the postseason, and no offense to Murray, Denver is running behind on that count. Also, the Lakers still haven’t reached their ceiling as a team. Let’s assume they’ll finally touch it in this series and deny Jokic for the second time in four seasons. Lakers in 7.
* * *
Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.