The Denver Nuggets are starting to feel a bit inevitable. It’s a wild proclamation for a team noted for its prior postseason shortcomings and talent that was good but not quite good enough. But they’re a bag with a bunch of toys. One night Jamal Murray can kill you with incredible shooting and shot-making. The next Nikola Jokic can dot your defense up with sick passing, flat-footed rainbow jump-shots or pure size that’s about as close to Shaq as we’ve ever seen. Even Michael Porter Jr. can appear out of nowhere and use his shot creation skills to put you down a few points.
These playoffs, Denver has turned itself back into the team it was during the 2018-19 season, utilizing the creativity it holds. Jokic isn’t only feeding guys around him, he’s creating for himself because he’s just bigger than everyone else. Jokic’s ability to do that contributed heavily to the team’s upset of the Clippers in seven games during the second round. In addition, when you have Murray not only being a bit more consistent with his postseason performance, but elevating his play to a level where it affects winning at a greater rate than in the past, it kind of made the Nuggets unguardable, and simply better than the Clippers.
Denver might have gotten a bit lucky. The Clippers blown 3-1 lead was mostly their own fault, thanks to embarrassing defensive effort and a lack of adjustments made by head coach Doc Rivers. Those are the type of mistakes the Lakers likely won’t make, or at least we don’t think they will. That was said about the Clippers – who should’ve beat the Lakers in a potential Western Conference Finals – and look what happened.
But the Lakers might actually be better suited to take Denver down. While Jokic and Murray went to a level that seemed unprecedented, the Clippers didn’t have the best personnel to defend one of them. Montrezl Harrell was played off the floor thanks to his height disadvantage with the Serbian stud. Ivica Zubac was the Clippers counter to Harrell’s struggles, but he didn’t have the feet to keep up with the surprisingly fluid and athletic Jokic.
Anthony Davis had a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year. He was the anchor of a Lakers defense that stunned everyone with a finish in third place in Defensive Rating. That effort is why he finished third on this MVP ballot.
The Lakers rim protection has been phenomenal this year in addition to the Davis. The revitalization of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee’s steadiness has somehow worked. Unlike most teams, who fear Jokic because of the lack of size on most rosters, the Lakers are the most equipped team in terms of the sheer amount of bodies they have.
Murray is a much bigger issue for them, given their personnel. That’s frightening, considering what he did in round one and in Game 7 against the Clippers. But the Lakers were faced with a similar titanic force in their first round series against Damian Lillard, who entered the matchup fresh off the seeding games’ MVP award.
LA handled Lillard by simply out-producing him instead of pressuring him defensively. Without Avery Bradley, and at the time Rajon Rondo, the Lakers didn’t have someone they felt great about sticking on guards like Lillard – no one on that roster was going to limit damage. Instead of trying to stop Lillard, they attacked Portland’s weak defense with their stars, LeBron James and Davis. Expectedly, those two were insurmountable. Lillard’s eventual injury also helped.
The Lakers work on James Harden in the second round was impressive, and could offer a solution against Murray. Doubling Harden completely shut down the Rockets offense, as he was their primary initiator and creator. Houston’s offense is meant for him to do one thing and practically everyone else do another singular thing (stand around and shoot threes). The lack of creativity with Harden locked down killed their flow. Their only other option was putting the ball in Russell Westbrook’s hands, which predictably didn’t go so well.
The problem with the Lakers treating Murray like Harden is that the Clippers’ downfall was rooted in doing just that. Throughout Game 7, the Clippers hedged Murray after every screen or doubled Jokic when he rolled. Rivers’ lack of an adjustment, in addition to reckless off-ball defense, cost the Clippers the series. Denver picked apart the Clippers doubles, which should scare the Lakers. They’re likely back to square one with defending Murray, which results slapping a combination of Rondo and Alex Caruso on him.
James and Davis should make the Lakers problems with Murray not matter. They made that the case in the first round against Lillard. But the Clippers superstar duo couldn’t overcome it last round, which creates a .500 track record in these playoffs of teams stopping flaming hot guards with offense instead of defense. The Lakers are going to be the tiebreaker regardless of how this series turns out.
But with James and Davis, it really shouldn’t matter. This is James’ series. Fresh off what he’ll likely perceive to be a MVP snubbing, James should be able to dominate Denver. Their best bet is Jerami Grant, who’s a lengthy, athletic defender but probably doesn’t have the strength to limit James. Paul Millsap has finally came along – the Nuggets could utilize him in switches against the runner-up MVP as his strength will be greatly needed. Still, Millsap’s foot-speed is lacking. Gary Harris is a bit slight, but could be another option if James expectedly torches the other two.
Davis is in a tougher spot. Jokic isn’t a good defender, but he’s not the black hole he’s been in years past, and like it does offensively, his sheer size helps. Davis should play conversely of how he did against Houston. Instead of getting down in the paint, posting up and hitting easy shots, dragging Jokic out to the perimeter, making him defend mid-rangers, three-pointers and drives from the versatile Davis has to be the Lakers game-plan. Force Jokic to shuffle his feet, move and work hard defensively. Posting up allows him to sit back and use his size.
That should be enough for the Lakers to get this series done. But the Clippers failed us in that regard, and it puts a sudden unease over this prediction and the series as a whole. The good news is that the Lakers were able to learn from their crosstown counterparts, and James isn’t one that’s going to bow down and not take an opponent seriously. Then again, you could have said the same about Leonard.
If Denver can do this – once again – it goes down as the most stunning run to a NBA Finals ever – the bubble environment be damned. If the Nuggets win the Finals, then place an asterisk on it all you want. But there were basketball reasons it happened – not just personal, mental or situational reasons. If basketball prevails once again this series, however, then the Lakers are going to be back in the Finals, and everything might just feel normal again.
Prediction: Lakers in 6