Preview: Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers open Western Conference Finals

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While it is still a shock to see the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 Western Conference Finals after falling behind 3-1 in their first two series, all of the drama and excitement of Tuesday’s Game 7 win over the LA Clippers must be a thing of the past as Denver prepares to open the series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Game 1 will present Denver with a new challenge in the form of a Lakers team that relies on dominant play in the frontcourt, a stark contrast to the Clippers and Utah Jazz teams that the Nuggets have faced this postseason.

All eyes will continue to be on Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, who have only continued to cement themselves as one of the premier star duos in the league during this improbable postseason run.

In the conference semifinals, Murray averaged 29 points per game across Denver’s three-consecutive wins to complete the comeback, while Jokić dominated the Clippers’ frontcourt to the tune of 24.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game on 50.6 percent shooting from the field.

For the Lakers, the attention will be on the dominant duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The two have been in complete control through Los Angeles’ first 10 playoff games. James has averaged of 26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game on 65.4 true shooting percentage, while Davis’s numbers are equally impressive, with averages of 27.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 65.9 true shooting percentage.

Here are the key storylines to focus on in Friday’s Game 1.

Who will get first crack at defending James?

The question of who will earn the responsibility of defending the four-time MVP may very well define the series for Denver.

Of course, this will have to be a committee approach for the Nuggets, as no one defender will be able to match up with James every minute he is on the floor.

The most likely candidates for this task are Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap. Craig directly matched up with James the majority of the time when the two teams faced off in the regular season. Craig defended James for 8:39 across two contests, holding James to 4-of-15 shooting from the field, thus making the undrafted wing an intriguing option for head coach Michael Malone to have in hopes of slowing James down.

Millsap and Grant didn’t fare as well when matched up against James in the regular season. Millsap, Denver’s veteran forward with plenty of experience facing James in the Eastern Conference playoffs over the past decade, didn’t provide much resistance in this matchup.

James shot 7 of 11 when defended directly by Millsap in the regular season, while he connected on 57.1 percent (4 of 7) when being guarded by Grant. Given the amount of switching that occurs in modern defensive schemes, there will be times smaller players such as Gary Harris and Murray matchup with James.

However, look for Malone and the Nuggets to primarily rely on Craig, Grant and Millsap when it comes to slowing James down.

How will Denver’s rim protection hold up?

One of the biggest mismatches in this series may play out around the basket. The Lakers’ offense is built on attacking the basket and finishing at an elite rate, which compensates for their relatively low volume of 3-point attempts and shots from the mid-range.

During the regular season, Los Angeles finished second in the league in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the rim (39.8 percent), while the Lakers shot a staggering 68.8 percent in that area, which was tops in the league.

On the other side of this is Denver’s rim protection, which isn’t a strength of its defense. The Nuggets allowed opponents to attempt 35.8 percent of their shots at the rim (18th in the league), while those opponents connected on 65.3 percent of such attempts, which placed Denver 22nd in the league.

The Nuggets lack elite rim protection in the rotation and will have to rely on their perimeter defenders keeping Los Angeles out of the paint. Weakside rotations from players such as Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap will be crucial in helping Jokić and Mason Plumlee defend the rim throughout the series.

Can Murray dominate Los Angeles’ backcourt?

Given the struggles that Jokić may have against the Lakers’ frontcourt (especially when matched up with Davis), the Nuggets will need Murray to take over from time to time, which he has shown that he is more than capable of during this playoff run.

After fighting through the defense of Patrick Beverley, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the conference semifinals, Murray will be glad to face off against the Lakers’ backcourt. Although there are some strong defenders in that unit, Los Angeles doesn’t have a lockdown defender to match up with Murray.

Danny Green hasn’t looked as quick on the perimeter in his age-33 season, Rajon Rondo’s defensive consistency can come and go, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope competes but hasn’t earned a reputation of a lockdown perimeter defender.
During the regular season, Murray averaged 18.5 points per game on 47.6 shooting from the field, but this current version of Murray is another challenge for Los Angeles to deal with.

With playoff averages of 27.1 points and 6.4 assists per game on 62.5 true shooting percentage, Murray has played at an All-NBA level over the past month, and if that can continue in this series, the Nuggets will find themselves with a chance to earn a trip to the NBA Finals.

Game 1 will tip at 7 p.m. Friday and will air on TNT (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).