Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Guide to the Western Conference Finals

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

It’s a rematch 11 years in the making.

Fresh off making NBA history, the Denver Nuggets face another daunting task in the form of another Los Angeles team in the Western Conference Finals.

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Although both teams have gone through their own versions of rebuilds over the past decade and change, the Nuggets and Lakers are back at the top of the conference and are prepared to battle for a trip to the NBA Finals.

After coming back from a 3-1 series deficit once again to advance past the LA Clippers in the conference semifinals, the Nuggets are playing with house money as they prepare for their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2009.

Denver became the first team in league history to overcome a 3-1 deficit twice in the same postseason run, with the latest triumph putting the Nuggets on the national stage, where they have shined.

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Jamal Murray averaged 29 points per game across Denver’s three-consecutive wins to complete the Nuggets’ most recent comeback, while Nikola 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.

Although many favored the Clippers to advance out of the Western Conference, Denver must now shift its focus on to the Lakers, a team that has operated at an extremely high level in the playoffs. After dispatching both the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets in five games apiece in the first two rounds, Los Angeles will certainly have a rest and preparation advantage over Denver.

Let’s take a closer look at the matchup between these two teams in our series guide.

Regular-season series

The outcome of the regular-season series between these two teams won’t give Nuggets fans much more confidence heading into the conference finals. The Lakers won the series 3-1, although several of the matchups weren’t very revealing as it relates to this upcoming playoff series.

The first meeting back in early December saw a Denver team deploy a rotation that has changed quite a bit with the departure of Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the trade deadline, coupled with the emergence of Jerami Grant, who has settled into a key role for Michael Malone’s squad.

In Denver’s lone victory in three games against Los Angeles later that month, LeBron James didn’t play. In that game, the Nuggets gained control of the game early and never looked back, with Paul Millsap having 21 points in one of his best performances of the season.

Los Angeles won at Pepsi Center for the second time this season right before the All-Star break, in a thrilling 120-116 overtime affair. As expected, the Lakers were led by James and Anthony Davis, who combined for 65 points, 22 rebounds and 16 assists.

Finally, a Kyle Kuzma 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds remaining allowed the Lakers to escape with a victory in the last matchup between the teams, which took place in the Orlando bubble. Malone opted to not push his key rotation players much in the contest, as no starter played over 26 minutes.

Key storylines

Who will guard LeBron James?

LeBron James is on a mission.

At 35 years old, James recognizes that there may not be many more opportunities to add to his legacy. Returning to a conference finals for the first time since 2018 following a down-year in Los Angeles last season, James is equipped with a star running mate and capable supporting cast in his attempt to win his fourth championship.

James has been dominant in the playoffs up to this point, with averages of 26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game on a 65.4 true shooting percentage. The pressing question for Denver is who will be tasked with guarding the four-time MVP?

Looking through regular season matchup date on NBA.com, Torrey Craig directly matched up with James the majority of the time when the two teams faced off. Craig defended James for 8:39 across two regular-season contests, holding James to 4-of-15 shooting from the field, thus making the undrafted wing an intriguing option for Malone to have in hopes of slowing James down.

Looking down the roster, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant also spent some time on James but with less success to show for it. James shot 7 of 11 when defended directly by Millsap (although Millsap did have a highlight-worthy block against James as a help defender), while the four-time league MVP connected on 57.1 percent (4 of 7) when being guarded by Grant.

Look for Malone to stick with the same starting lineup from the Clippers series, hoping that Grant and Millsap can split the responsibility of defending James before Craig enters the game. If James is able to get in a rhythm early in the series, Denver will be in major trouble as a result of his ability to control all facets of the game using his scoring and playmaking.

Los Angeles’ elite transition play

A constant theme throughout Denver’s conference semifinals series against the Clippers was LA’s ability to take advantage of the Nuggets’ mistakes and rack up fast break points.

The Clippers had two games with at least 20 fast break points in the series, which should ring some alarms for Malone and the coaching staff considering the success that the Lakers had in transition this season.

The Lakers scored at least 10 fast break points in nine of their 10 playoff games, which included multiple games with over 20 such points. In the regular season, Los Angeles ranked fifth in the frequency of transition plays, first in points added per 100 possessions in transition and first in transition efficiency (points scored per 100 transition plays), per Cleaning the Glass.

For the most part, the Nuggets’ defense was around league average when it came to limiting and stopping transition opportunities for opponents. However, after facing a Utah Jazz team that didn’t look to get out in the fast break in the first round, Denver had a very up-and-down performance in this regard against the Clippers.

Off of missed shots, it will be crucial that Denver gets back in transition. This will present a dilemma for the Nuggets, who have thrived on the offensive glass this season, finishing the regular season third in offensive rebound percentage. Despite Los Angeles’ size in the frontcourt, the Lakers hovered around league average in keeping teams off the offensive glass, so there could be room for Denver to create an advantage on the boards.

However, regardless of if it’s after a missed shot or turnover, the Nuggets must be running back down the floor and picking up their matchup in order to force the Lakers to operate in the halfcourt, where the Lakers’ offense ranked outside the top 10 in the regular season.

Can Jokić have success against the Lakers?

Although the Serbian big man didn’t play his usual minutes in the final regular-season matchup between the teams, it was another pedestrian performance that highlighted the struggles that Jokić had against Los Angeles this season.

In 31.3 minutes per game across four games, the All-NBA Second Team center averaged 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game on 48.9 percent shooting from the field. Those numbers are a far cry from his regular-season averages of 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game on 52.8 percent from the field, highlighting how the Lakers’ size and athleticism in the frontcourt disrupted Jokić.

As the two-time All-Star showed in the Feb. 12 meeting between the two teams, Jokić is capable of leading Denver’s offense in this matchup. In that overtime loss, Jokić had 22 points (9 of 18 from the field), 11 rebounds and six assists.

In fact, a look at the available matchup highlights where Jokić struggled against Los Angeles this season.

When directly defended by JaVale McGee, Jokić thrived, connecting on 7 of 11 attempts from the field. When Dwight Howard matched up against the Serbian, that success decreased, but not by much. When going against Howard, Jokić shot an event 50 percent (5 of 10) from the field.

However, enter Anthony Davis. The 6’10” big man with a 7’6” wingspan is the type of athletic big man that can bother Jokić, which is what happened when the two directly matched up in the regular season. Denver’s star big man shot just 3 of 10 and committed three turnovers when defended by Davis across 9:24 in the four regular-season meetings.

It remains to be seen if Lakers head coach Frank Vogel will stick with his smaller starting lineup that moves Davis down to the center spot or if JaVale McGee will return to the starting five for this series against the bigger Nuggets team.

Jokić should be effective against Los Angeles’ more traditional big men in this series. Plus, if the Serbian can get going in those matchups, he has shown that he can break down a defense from the post and top of the key, especially when he faces double-teams.

The Nuggets will need everything Jokić can give them if they hope to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Potential X-factor: Michael Porter Jr.

Porter Jr. represents an x-factor in this series mainly as a result of rarely taking the floor against Los Angeles in the regular season.

In the three meetings before the Orlando bubble, the rookie forward saw a grand total of five minutes of game action in the Nuggets’ blowout win over the Lakers in late December.

In the Orlando seeding games, Porter Jr. assumed a big role in Denver’s rotation, which saw him play 24 minutes in the game against the Lakers. In that limited performance, the 22-year-old impressed with 15 points on perfect 6-of-6 shooting from the field.

Porter Jr. has added an element to the Nuggets rotation that hadn’t previously existed: size on the wing. For most of the past two years, Malone has had to rely on undersized players such as Will Barton III to man the small forward position, which has presented some challenges for Denver when matching up against teams with elite wings, such as the Clippers and Lakers.

Although Porter Jr. is not known for his defensive contributions at this point in his career, he is an elite rebounder at the wing positions and can use his size effectively on the offensive end to shoot over smaller defenders and increase Denver’s advantage on the offensive glass.

Los Angeles doesn’t have much size on the wing to compete with Porter Jr., especially on the second unit. It’s likely that the former 14th overall pick in the 2018 Draft will find himself being defended by smaller players such as Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and if that’s the case, Denver should look to feature the rookie when both teams go to their benches.

The Western Conference Finals will begin on Friday, Sept. 18 at 7 p.m. MT (TNT, RADIO: 92.5FM).

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