Who Has the Edge in Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference Finals?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2020

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, right, celebrates their win over the Los Angeles Clippers in an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Following a 104-89 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, the Denver Nuggets are now an unthinkable 6-0 in elimination games this postseason. They were down double figures in five of those six wins.

And oh, they've done all this in only two rounds.

Their reward for being the first team in NBA history to overcome two 3-1 deficits in a single postseason? LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Denver will likely enter the series as the underdog. L.A. is the West's top seed, and FiveThirtyEight's first statistical projection gave the Lakers a 61 percent chance to advance to the Finals.

But the biggest lesson of the league's basketball bubble might be that there is simply no quit in these Nuggets.

"They gotta worry about us too," Jamal Murray told ESPN's Rachel Nichols when asked about concerns Denver might have heading into the Western Conference Finals.

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Murray's right, but there are at least two big reasons the Lakers played at a 60-win pace this season. And Denver's team defense, despite a stellar Game 7 performance against the Clippers, hasn't inspired a ton of confidence it can slow LeBron and AD.

In the regular season, the 111.1 points per 100 possessions the Nuggets allowed ranked 16th in the league, according to Cleaning The Glass. In the playoffs, that number has jumped up to 116.1.

The most obvious hack still seems to be getting Nikola Jokic involved in defending pick-and-rolls, something James and Davis are well prepared for.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

LeBron used just over a quarter of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler this season, per NBA.com. If he can engineer switches to get Jokic defending him in space, the Lakers will likely keep driving that Denver defensive rating up.

L.A.'s foray into smaller lineups against the Houston Rockets could help too. If Davis is at the 5, Jokic will be in danger of getting into foul trouble. Among players with at least 100 shots this postseason, AD trails only Jimmy Butler in free-throw-attempt rate, per Stathead. For the Lakers, the more they make Jokic defend, the better.

The Serbian causes plenty of problems himself on the other end of the floor, though. After going for 22 rebounds, 16 points and 13 assists in the series clincher over the Clippers, Jokic's playoff averages are 25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists.

The way he manages possessions from anywhere on the floor makes him a truly unique big man. And as he surveys and directs actions, Murray can essentially operate as a shooting guard. That's one of the reasons Murray has been able to average an absurd 27.1 points during the playoffs.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Of course, he can seamlessly transition back to a more traditional 1's role. And this season, the Lakers were thoroughly outplayed by opposing point guards, allowing them an average of 24.1 points per game, according to 82games.com. Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will all get their shots at him, but Murray likely isn't done posting gaudy point totals.

He and Jokic have been perhaps the best duo in the postseason, but the reason for that qualifier is L.A.'s top two. Denver has faced stiffer competition than the Lakers, but LeBron and AD have the top two box plus/minuses of players still in the bubble.

The basic numbers behind that catch-all metric are ridiculous. LeBron is putting up 26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. AD's right there with him on 27.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals.

Denver's wing defenders—Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig and even Paul Millsap—may occasionally bother LeBron, but he'll generally control the series on the offensive end. And there may be nothing even resembling an answer for AD.

Mason Plumlee is a solid, if still outmatched, interior defender, but playing him extended minutes could crater the offense. That is, unless, the Lakers go back to the bigger lineups they deployed during the season, when Davis played long stretches alongside JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard. If that's the case, the Nuggets might be able to get away with some Jokic-Plumlee minutes.

Deploying smaller defenders like Grant or Millsap on Davis is just asking for a nightmare in the post.

In sum, L.A.'s top two gets the edge in this matchup. And of course, that goes a long way in a playoff series, when rotations are often shortened and star power generally carries the day. But Denver should be able to keep this series competitive with its depth and chemistry.

The Athletic's James Edwards highlighted the top-heavy advantage the Lakers roster has in the series:

Green probably lands somewhere in that 3-10 range—he's still a prototypical three-and-D player with championship experience—and Rondo always seems to find another gear in the playoffs. But the Nuggets' supporting cast is stacked with solid players who know their roles.

Harris, Grant, Millsap, Plumlee and Monte Morris will all have their moments. Probably more than Caruso, McGee, Howard, Markieff Morris, KCP and Rondo. But that may not be enough to make up the gap in superstar power.

If the Nuggets are really going to challenge for a spot in the Finals, they'll likely need to win the battle of the young guns.

Michael Porter Jr. was electrifying in seven regular-season bubble games, averaging 22.0 points and topping 30 twice. Defensive lapses have led to a dwindling role in the playoffs, though.

Kyle Kuzma has had a similar experience in Orlando, averaging 15.4 points in the seeding games before dropping to 11.0 in the postseason.

A breakout performance from either could tip the scales, but the safest bet feels like LeBron and the Lakers.

Of course, the Clippers felt like a pretty safe bet too.