Ready for Jokic and Murray versus LeBron and AD? The #3 Denver Nuggets rallied from down 3-1 to win both their playoff series in order to advance to the Western Conference Finals where they’ll face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.

LA Lakers Denver Nuggets Western Conference Finals
Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets defends LeBron James of the LA Lakers in Denver. (Image: Porter Lambert/Getty)

The Lakers barely broke a sweat in the postseason. After dropping their first playoff game to the #8 Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers are 8-1. The Lakers knocked out the gassed #4 Houston Rockets in five games to reach the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers were 3-1 against the Nuggets in the regular season. In the one game that Denver won, LeBron didn’t suit up for the Lakers. So, with LeBron in the lineup, the Lakers were undefeated against the Nuggets this year.

#1 LA Lakers (52-19) vs #3 Denver Nuggets (46-27)
  • Tip-off: 6:00pm PT
  • Point Spread: LAL -7
  • Total: 211 o/u
  • Money Line: DEN +230 / LAL -270

According to a current futures line from DraftKings, the Lakers are -230 odds to win the 2020 NBA Championship. The Nuggets are the long shot on the board at +1000.

In the series winner prop bet category, DraftKings listed the Nuggets at +450 to win the Western Conference Finals, while the Lakers were overwhelming favorites at -625 to advance to the NBA Finals.

Well-Rested Lakers Study the Nuggets

The Lakers had the advantage of extra rest and the ability to scout those pesky Nuggets. LeBron knows the Nuggets won’t freak out if they lose a game or two to start the series. The Lakers will have to take a killer instinct into the Western Conference Finals and not let up if they pull ahead of the Nuggets.

It’s impossible to intimidate a team that doesn’t flinch when they’re down and things aren’t going their way. We saw multiple examples this postseason when coaches refused to make adjustments on the fly, or other teams loaded with talent panicked when they went cold.

The Lakers are on a specific mission to thwart Nikola Jokic (25.4 ppg, 10.8 rebounds) and Jamal Murray (27.1 ppg, 6.4 assists). Those two generate the bulk of Denver’s offense. Furthermore, both are excellent passers who quickly get the ball into the hands of open teammates whenever they’re double-teamed.

Jokic is considered the league’s top big man passer, averaging 6.1 assists in the postseason. The versatile Jokic creates mismatch problems because he has a variety of moves, including a soft touch from the perimeter and an old-man, bump-and-grind style with his back to the basket.

“He’s a tough guy to guard,” admitted Davis. “Joker got moves. But it’s my job to know his go-to moves, know your personnel and try to limit him as much as possible.”

If the Lakers dispatch Anthony Davis to shut down Jokic, that will leave the rest of the paint unguarded. Could Frank Vogel opt for a Twin Towers type of defense (Dwight Howard and AD), and the opposite approach of the swift-response, shorter tactical unit he called upon to neutralize the Rockets’ small-ball philosophy?

Denver No Longer Under the Radar

The Nuggets were disregarded all season. They came into this season offering up tremendous value at 18/1 odds to win the championship. They were a basket away from advancing to the 2019 Western Conference Finals, and they probably would have defeated the banged-up Golden State Warriors.

Once Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the LA Clippers, the hype train left the station and the Battle of LA became the narrative of the Western Conference with the Clippers and Lakers squaring off in a shootout at high noon to determine the representative of the wild, wild west.

The Nuggets had everyone exactly where they wanted them. Even though the Nuggets were the #3 seed in the west, the hoi polloi expected Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz would send the Nugs on an early vacation back to Colorado where they’d return to hiking in the Rocky Mountains and toking on potent marijuana strains named after band members of the String Cheese Incident.

Jamal Murray had other ideas and played the role of the spoiler in the first round. Murray outgunned the Spida, and the Nuggets rallied from a 3-1 hole to win the opening round.

In the Western semifinals, Jokic played through a wrist injury. The #2 Clippers couldn’t find anyone to guard Jokic, so the Nuggets rallied back from a 3-1 hole once again. In the do-or-die Game 7, Jokic dropped a triple-double on the Clips with 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 13 assists.

Now that everyone’s seen the Nuggets pull off back-to-back series wins, despite falling into a 3-1 hole, Denver is no longer the surprise team of the NBA Bubble. The Nuggets are a mere four wins away from securing a spot in the NBA Finals.

Causing Gridlock, Slowing Down LA

Denver will be tasked with slowing down LA’s transition game in the Western Conference Finals. The modern Lakers don’t run anything like the break-neck fast break of Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers era, but they do boast a deadly transition offense that favors the short corner for a quick corner trey. The Lakers score nearly 19% of their offense during fast-break possessions. They also attempted 40% of their 3-point shots from the corners.

Anthony Davis averages 27.6 ppg and 10.9 rebounds. Unlike the Greek Freak, AD can score from anywhere and at any given time. He’s most lethal in transition and, unless Jokic grew seven inches taller overnight, there’s no way anyone can stop him on the fast break.

“It’s remarkable what LeBron is still doing at his age,” said Denver head coach Michael Malone. “The minutes he’s playing, how effective he is on both ends of the floor, and the impact he has on both ends of the floor, his will to win is just incredible.”

LeBron (26.6 ppg, 10.6 rebounds, 8.8 assists) is dangerous this season because he doesn’t have to be the primary scorer in every single game.

Someone other than Kye Kuzma, or “Playoff Rondo” will have to provide a consistent scoring stream. Alex Caruso developed a good rapport with LeBron. If you gain LBJ’s trust and respect, then he’ll look for you when he’s double-teamed. Caruso’s sharpshooting abilities will come in handy against Denver. Caruso averaged 8.4 ppg against the Rockets, which is an uptick from his 5.5 ppg in the regular season.

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