The Nikola Jokic-Anthony Davis matchup will likely be the most important of these conference finals.
What a contrast, at least according to the standings: the top seed in the West versus a Play-In tournament survivor. If we go strictly by that and nothing more, the Nuggets would almost be ticketed to the NBA Finals. But as we all know, the real state of the Western Conference Finals is much deeper than that.
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Give the Nuggets this: Denver avoided all the drama that dogged the Lakers for most of the season. The Nuggets didn't deal with many injuries, kept their key pieces intact, had no reason to desperately seek help at the trade deadline, and easily took home-court advantage through the playoffs by earning the best record in the West (and second-best home record in the league). Nikola Jokic nearly snagged a third consecutive Kia NBA MVP and over the past few years has proven better - and certainly more durable - than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. How about more hungry? Of the three players, he is the one without a ring.
This rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals, played in the Orlando bubble, brings these three stars back together. The Lakers back then were the more balanced and experienced and frankly the better team; LeBron was thirsty for another ring and AD for his first. The Nuggets are now much wiser from the experience and, as the top seed, have a lot to prove. They've never been to the Finals, let alone won an NBA title. They're right on the doorstep again, but with LeBron standing in the way, does that really mean they're any closer?
The Lakers can be classified as the team trending harder right now. Their postseason wins, over the No. 2 seed Grizzlies and defending champion Warriors, are more impressive than Denver's run to this point. In short, L.A. is the sweetest story given where it's been, with LeBron four games closer to his 11th Finals appearance.
None of it could matter. Every series and almost every game brings its own personality and problems and heroes and storylines. One thing is for sure: this shouldn't be a quick series. Give the Lakers and Nuggets so much respect.
Regular season results
26th of October: Nuggets 110, Lakers 99
30 October: Lakers 121, Nuggets 110
16. december: Lakers 126, Nuggets 108
January 9: Nuggets 122, Lakers 109
3 times and se
With the Lakers advancing to the West Finals, an epic Nikola Jokic-Anthony Davis matchup is on deck.
Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis.For the first time in this playoff, these two elite big men will get a supreme test. They are different players with different body types and skills but have the same effect. In terms of value to his team, let's just say Jokic doesn't have LeBron James with him. That puts a lot of pressure on Jokic to be the heavy in this matchup. While Davis is a great shot blocker, Jokic will make it tough for him in the post because of his ability to follow up on his own miss, and also his soft touch and footwork around the rim. But in defense, Jokic must be at his best against Davis, who can stretch the floor and clearly has an edge in athletics. Overall, this isn't a classic big-man matchup in the normal sense, but it's an excellent one nonetheless. Davis didn't see any significant action in the first round against Memphis with Steven Adams out or the Warriors, and Jokic was only tested a bit more against Rudy Gobert and Deandre Ayton. That changes for both of these series.
LeBron's Endurance, Part III.The 38-year-old force of nature is once again on a deep postseason run and so far, so good. He's actually conquered three opponents so far: Memphis, Golden State and Father Time. LeBron was nearly flawless in the first two rounds, and the closer he gets to the championship trophy, the stronger his determination will be. There's a good chance the Nuggets will be the team that gives him the least trouble. Denver doesn't have a defensive ace, certainly none on the level of LeBron's last two defenders, Dillon Brooks (laugh if you want, but he made All-Defensive this year) and Andrew Wiggins. LeBron gets Aaron Gordon, a clear notch below, and if Gordon gets into foul trouble, there is no viable backup plan for Denver. If LeBron stays physical for another series with only one day's rest between games, and there's no reason to believe he won't, he'll have every reason to produce a strong series.
Bubble Murray revisited?Jamal Murray delivered a scorching 2020 playoff game, occupying for about a month a spot enjoyed only by the very best in basketball. That's how unstoppable he was at times on the Disney campus. His 50-game duel with Donovan Mitchell in the first round against Utah was a must-watch, and his follow-up against the Clippers and Lakers was solid. In all, Murray averaged 26.5 points, making half of his shots and was a problem for anyone tasked with stopping him. That said, it's still his career highlight. Injuries certainly played a role in that (he missed an entire season-plus after knee surgery), and inconsistency has followed him since. He's an unorthodox point guard who gives Jokic playmaking assignments and can be a streaky shooter at times. He will have to be on the bubble to panic the Lakers. The Lakers have to respect him, but after trapping and harassing Steph Curry, a far bigger threat, they are well prepared for the challenge.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will face his former team in the Western Conference finals.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nuggets.Hard to believe, but the Lakers dumped him a few summers ago in their trade for… wait for it… Russell Westbrook. Well, well. KCP was one of the heroes of the 2020 championship for the Lakers as he consistently hit big shots against Miami to help win this series. He was loved by LeBron and Davis for his willingness to show up and show off. They missed KCP until this February, when the summary replay reduced his absence. Meanwhile, the Nuggets traded for him to bring championship experience, improve their perimeter defense and provide another shooter around Jokic. And for the most part, KCP has lived up to these expectations. He falls too much in love with the 3-pointer at times, and probably lost half a step defensively from a few years ago. But he's here, and he's playing against his former team, and he has every incentive to deliver a strong series. His defense against D'Angelo Russell could be crucial.
Number to know
118,7 —The Nuggets have scored 118.7 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds,the best characterfor offensive efficiency in these playoffs. And they have scored effectively against two teams - Minnesota and Phoenix - that rankedin the top 10 defensivelyin the regular season.
The Lakers have allowed just 106.5 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds,the best characterfor defensive efficiency in these playoffs. And they've been so good defensively against two teams — Memphis and Golden State — that were rankedin the top 11 offensivelyin the regular season.
So it's attack #1 vs. No. 1 defense and the paint will be where both will be tested. Denver has taken 53% of its shots, the highest rate in the playoffs, in the paint and shot 57.2% (sixth best) there. The Lakers, meanwhile, have allowed their opponents to shoot just 50.9% (second-lowest) in the paint. That figure is only 47.9%with Anthony Davis on the floor.
- John Schuhman
Three months ago, the Nuggets were a strong favorite to reach the West Finals as the soon-to-be top seed. Meanwhile, the Lakers were a mess. Then came the L.A. rebirth, and here they are, the team that suddenly no one wanted to play. Even during their rough times, the Lakers still had LeBron and AD; they just weren't healthy. The whole league knew what L.A. was able to do once it had been cured; as a bonus, the Lakers also jettisoned Russell Westbrook, and the improvement began in earnest. While the Lakers' rotation pieces have been better than expected and are more consistent than the Nuggets' bench, this series can and should really come down to this: L.A. has two stars and the Nuggets one. Stars matter in the postseason, and Murray, no offense, Denver is running behind on that point. Also, the Lakers still haven't reached their ceiling as a team. Let's assume they finally touch it in this series and deny Jokic for the second time in four seasons.Lakers i 7.
Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can send him an emailher, Findhis archive hereand follow him onTwitter.
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