Here we go again… In a rematch of the bubble Western Conference decider, the Denver Nuggets take on the Los Angeles Lakers for a place in the NBA Finals.
We’re going back to the Bubble for a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals with the Denver Nuggets taking homecourt advantage into their series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers advanced in that one and went on to win the NBA Finals. The Nuggets, on the other hand, haven’t ever played in a finals series let alone won a championship.
It looks like a different story this year, though. The Nuggets are favoured to end the series as Western Conference Champions at $1.57. They finished up the regular season with the best record in the West, have kept relatively healthy, and the key pieces of the team remain from when they were last at this stage. Denver’s offence has fired all season behind Nikola Jokic. We don’t need to start another debate around voter fatigue and The Joker missing out on a third consecutive MVP award. The numbers say enough: 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game.
That offence has continued to fire throughout the post-season for the Nuggets to score 118.7 points per 100 possessions – the best mark through the first two rounds.
Meanwhile, the Lakers barely scraped into the playoffs, struggled with injuries all season, and only LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain from their championship-winning team. A significant turnover saved their season, but cohesion matters. When it’s all on the line and as pressure and fatigue slip in, knowing what those around you can, and will, do is crucial. However, as the old saying goes, “defence wins championships.”
In contrast to Denver’s offence, Los Angeles has allowed their opposition to score only 106.5 points per 100 possessions – the best mark through the first two rounds.
These two teams are a lot different to the last time they met in the Western Conference Finals. Their path to this point throughout the 2022-23 season couldn’t be more different again. But here we are. A mouthwatering series between the best post-season offence and defence awaits.
As expected, Jokic is the man that will have the biggest say for Denver. He’s the $1.72 favourite to win the Western Conference MVP award. From there, his $3.40 to win the same award in the finals appeals. Jamal Murray played some of the best basketball of his career in the bubble but will have to go to another level if he’s to lead the Nuggets to victory as the MVP at $15.
For the Lakers, they’ll be eager to cause an upset as $2.95 and +5.5 dogs in the series-opener. They played from in front in the prior series and looked comfortable doing it. James has been here and done this all before too many times, too. This portion of the season doesn’t phase him, and with only 14 games left at most, expect the 38-year-old to throw everything into the rest of the season and threaten as the conference MVP at $4.50. You wouldn’t want to rule him out as the NBA Finals MVP at $9 either.
Players To Watch
Aaron Gordon: Anthony Davis is the one with four All-Defensive team selections to Gordon’s zero, but it’s the defence of the Nuggets forward that will go a long way to determining this series. James has still got it on any given night, but not every night. It’s up to Davis to pick up the slack on the nights James struggles, and up to Gordon to make that job as hard as possible. Gordon is known for his high-flying dunks but his greatest strength is without the ball. He’s Denver’s best defender and capable of guarding the opposition’s best player regardless of their position. As his $126 suggests, it’s unlikely that Gordon does enough to win the MVP award this series. However, if he can shut down Davis and receives the required hype from commentators and fans, he might just be in with a sniff.
Highest +/- this playoffs:
+93 — Aaron Gordon
+84 — Michael Porter Jr
+81 — Anthony Davis
+80 — Jamal Murray pic.twitter.com/lyq3btZi4m
— StatMuse (@statmuse) May 10, 2023
Anthony Davis: In saying all of that about Gordon, Davis is the key for Los Angeles. He’s the difference. James will give as much as his body can, but Davis should be a seven-game beast if that is what is required from him. Davis averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.4 blocks per game on his way to a ring in 2020. Through 12 games this post-season, he’s put up a relatively modest 21.2 points but grown another leg without the ball to average 14.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game. Likely to be matched up on Jokic defensively, the goal for Davis will be to force the rest of this Nuggets team to beat them – not Jokic alone. In seven games over the last three seasons, Jokic has found success as a scorer with Davis in front of him to score 51 points on 24-41 shooting (58.%%).
Russell/Reaves: James is no longer the point guard of this team. Whether it be to preserve his body and energy or simply a product of roster construction, James is playing off the ball a lot more. He’s playing in his traditional small forward position and moving up when the Lakers play a bit smaller. D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves are playing on the ball as a result. As distributors and scorers, their performance in this series will be paramount to LA’s success.
Nikola Jokic: It’s obvious, but he has to be here. Nikola Jokic is always worth watching, and right now, he’s considered one of the best post-season performers in NBA history.
Nikola Jokic currently has the highest career playoff PER in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/RBcoECcpSJ
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) May 14, 2023
Game 1 feels like one that the Lakers will look to stamp their authority in defence. Slow it down, play out of the half-court, and force the Nuggets to do the same. Stagger the rotation so Davis is in front of Jokic the whole game and ask the rest of the Nuggets to step up. With that in mind, the Under at 222.5 appeals to start.
While Jokic and the Nuggets seem to be able to score on anybody, there are concerns defensively. They finished the NBA regular season as a middling defensive team allowing 114.2 points per 100 possessions (15th in the NBA). It’s never been a strong point for the Nuggets, and if the Lakers are able to play up to their potential defensively and lock down Jokic relatively well, it’s difficult to see them winning four games.
Gordon is a threat defensively, but if he locks down one of James or Davis, who takes the other?
Looking through a defensive lens and considering how the best teams in this league often get to the top by dominating on that side of the ball, the Lakers to win the West at $2.40 is the play.