The baseline for a contender in the NBA is making the conference finals. Winning one round in the playoffs can often be attributed to a favorable matchup or catching a team at the right time. But winning two series in the postseason is an indicator that a team’s success isn’t matchup-dependent, and that this is a group capable of winning it all.
The Lakers entered this season with dreams of winning a championship, having finally paired two healthy superstars together for the first time in nearly a decade. After an uneven start in the bubble, they’ve cemented their status as a contender, a deserving entrant in this final four.
Their reward for reaching this benchmark is a date with the Denver Nuggets, the darlings of the bubble who are riding a hot streak for the ages. The Nuggets present some interesting challenges for the Lakers, ones that truthfully haven’t been given much consideration over the course of the season.
The modern NBA team is increasingly tilted towards wings. Stocking up on as many like-sized players who possess guard skills, shooting range, and switchability on defense is the en vogue strategy for success. It’s why so much of this season was spent bemoaning the Lakers’ lack of a secondary playmaker on the wing, or an additional perimeter defender to check such players.
Denver doesn’t follow that wing archetype. The Nuggets’ best players are a point guard and a center. They’re somewhat old-school in terms of their adherence to traditional positions, yet simultaneously innovative based on how those players function in what is still a modern offense. They have the size of a one and a five, but Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic can do everything on the court.
The Lakers may not have expected to match up against Denver at the start of the regular season, or even when the playoffs began. But the Nuggets have validated their place in the conference finals with a dazzling offense, just enough spirit on defense, and unending resilience. Even before they shocked the league in the playoffs, this is a team that has given the Lakers some grief.
The Lakers played the Nuggets four times this season. Two of those games don’t feel very predictive at all towards the outcome of this series, considering LeBron James didn’t play in one game in December, and Denver had severe personnel absences during their meeting in the seeding games. Those other two matchups, both Laker wins, were decided by a total of 13 points, and one went into overtime. Even if the lineups aren’t exactly what we’ll see in this upcoming series, there are important lessons to be gleaned there.
The most important one is that the Lakers still might be at their best playing small against Denver, despite the presence of Jokic. Facing a true seven-footer may make it seem like the Lakers can play big again after excising centers from their rotation against the Rockets — Frank Vogel has already said that the team will likely “return to form” against Denver, and bring back minutes for JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
But the Nuggets still outscored the Lakers when they played a traditional center. Conversely, the Lakers wrecked Denver (plus-34 over 56 minutes) when Anthony Davis was the five.
McGee hasn’t played meaningful minutes in two weeks, and asking him to come back to defend arguably the best offensive center in the league is a tall task, particularly considering Jokic looked pretty comfortable against McGee in the teams’ regular-season meetings.
Some coverages will be cleaned up in a seven-game series; for instance, the Lakers certainly won’t leave Jokic unaccounted for on the 3-point line on a pick-and-roll. However, it’s worth noting that Vogel benched McGee all the way back in February in this matchup to put Howard on Jokic. Even though Howard fared better than McGee, the defensive end isn’t where the matchup really tilts for the Lakers. Neither of those centers puts pressure on Jokic to defend in space. Davis does.
Much like Jokic subverts the traditional geometry of the floor by operating from the perimeter, and pretty much everywhere else, Davis can do the same. His ability to handle the ball and score all the way from the basket to the 3-point line will challenge Jokic to corral him and expend energy on the defensive end.
When Davis defends Jokic, his versatility could frustrate the Denver center. Davis was the key to the Lakers’ defense against the microball of the Rockets, and he will once again be the key against the mammoth Jokic. His ability to contain Jokic one-on-one as well as switch onto Jamal Murray during their two-man actions is something the Nuggets haven’t faced yet, and that will help the Lakers stay home on the other Denver players.
Another lesson from these two teams’ prior meetings is that the Nuggets aren’t afraid of playing on the big stage. Whether that was Murray erupting for 32 points in February and Monte Morris yapping at James in that same contest, Denver hasn’t backed down from the challenge of playing the Lakers. That mindset has carried through the postseason, when the Nuggets fought back from being down 3-1 — twice — and took out a presumptive title favorite in the process.
The Lakers often turn to James to settle things down, relying on his familiarity in big-game situations to get the team on track. The Nuggets don’t have anyone with that level of postseason experience, though Paul Millsap has played about half as many playoff games as James, but Murray and Jokic are already comfortable in critical moments.
The rest of the Denver roster has also risen to the occasion. Head coach Michael Malone has rallied his players time and time again. Jerami Grant, Gary Harris, and Torrey Craig all hit timely shots in the last two rounds, and they’re a capable collection of perimeter defenders to throw at James. Millsap found his footing again in the Clippers series, egged on by a confrontation with someone who looks a lot like Markieff Morris. The Lakers’ supporting cast will have its hands full contending with a team that goes nine deep without real weak links.
This series may simply come down to which duo outplays the other. James and Davis have won that battle so far, decisively so, against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and then James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Jokic and Murray have done the same against Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert as well as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. On paper, it would seem that James and Davis have an advantage again, though the Nuggets haven’t cared much for the supposed script of this postseason.
This Lakers, on the other hand, are right on schedule. They are exactly where they expected to be when they put together this team in the offseason. Over a year has passed since then, and the goal hasn’t changed, even if the team they need to beat has.