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The Denver Nuggets enter this year’s Western Conference Finals for the fifth time in franchise history. Their opponent is someone whom the franchise knows extremely well in this round, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have defeated the Nuggets in the previous three matchups, including most recently in the 2020 Bubble.
Can head coach Michael Malone and his three remaining holdovers (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr) get past a familiar duo (LeBron James and Anthony Davis) to make the team’s first NBA Finals in franchise history is the main question.
Keys to The Series
In the last series preview against the Golden State Warriors, I wrote that the Lakers bench would be the key to winning the series. The one player I did not mention made the biggest impact, Lonnie Walker IV. After being out of the rotation at the beginning of the Memphis series, Walker IV returned to the rotation in a big way in the last round.
After scoring in double figures for the first time since March 24th in Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors, Walker did something to change the series. The Lakers were down seven entering the final quarter and Walker scored all 12 of his points to lead the Lakers to a come-from-behind victory.
He had three games in double-figures and the Lakers won all three. If Walker can continue his scoring touch, added in with the Lakers supporting cast providing at least 50 points a game, it will lead to another Finals trip for Los Angeles.
The Lakers have punished Golden State and Memphis on the defensive end and Denver has to be able to score consistently. Denver can’t do stretches that last for long periods without scoring. As we learned in the last series, long periods without scoring will put the Nuggets in a bad spot.
Denver doesn’t have to score 130 points a game to win the series but they need to score regularly. Unlike the last series, the Nuggets’ main playmaker on offense can score from the high post. Everyone knows about the passing skill of Jokic but the Lakers can’t treat him in the same way that they did against Draymond Green.
If you leave Jokic open from 16-18 feet, he will knock down the open jumper. Even if Lakers head coach Darvin Ham tells Davis to guard him on the perimeter, Jokic will find open Nuggets using the Princeton backdoor cut play to create easy shots at the basket.
Jarred Vanderbilt’s defensive job on Stephen Curry was one of the stories that wasn’t talked about in the previous round. Guarding Curry and Ja Morant in the previous round are not the easiest players to guard. Now, Ham is going to have to use his defensive weapon against Murray.
His length and athleticism should provide Murray with problems. The more that Murray has to use energy on the offensive end, the less likely he will be able to help his teammates guard on the defensive end.
Aaron Gordon is the only player on the Nuggets roster that can guard James. Gordon has the size, strength and quickness to keep up with him. Gordon won’t shut down James but he needs to make him either give up the ball or take difficult shots.
James will attempt to get Gordon in foul trouble so that Malone will have to depend on Bruce Brown and/or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Neither player has the size or strength combination that Gordon has.
Denver enters this series with the best roster it has had in team history. Jokic doesn’t have to score to be at their best. When Jokic gets 10 or more assists, Denver’s record is 38-6 this season. The Lakers’ top-ranked playoff defense will need to make sure that Jokic’s teammates will have a difficult time making shots.
Ham has his team playing at an elite level on both sides of the basketball and it is proving that they don’t have to always rely on James and Davis to win games. Both teams have really good supporting casts and have players that can step up as needed to help their star players.
The difference in the series is the home-court advantage with Mile High Air in Denver. Denver will run and put the Lakers one step behind at home. The Nuggets have won all their home playoff games which will boost their confidence at home.
Jokic will provide Nuggets fans with his career-defining signature playoff moment and Murray will add on over 27 points per game as Denver finally gets to the Finals.
The Nuggets win the series in Five Games.