• Chris Harden

OTG's Western Conference Finals Preview: DEN vs LAL

As basketball fans, we have seen some incredible individual performances amongst some rigorous team efforts during this year's NBA Playoffs. Now, it’s time to see who will represent the West in the NBA Finals.

Mile High Efforts from the Nuggets

Sorry, Steve Balmer; but your franchise will still have not ever made an appearance in the conference finals. Maybe next year. That’s all I’m going to say about the Clippers, as this moment belongs to Denver. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic have led their third seeded Nuggets past the second seeded Clippers after being down three to one. The Nuggets seem to enjoy being down three to one, as they have made history this year.

No team in NBA history has ever come back from multiple three to one deficits in a single NBA playoff until this year as Denver first victimized the Jazz and then the Clippers. During the playoffs, Murray has averaged 27, 5 and 6 while Jokic is averaging 25, 11 and 6. This is Denver’s first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2009. Jokic has been one of the league's most consistent playoff performers, while Murray has struggled in that department. However, Murray has been able to show up in the clutch when his team needs him the most.

Denver hasn’t had an easy road to the Western Conference Finals either. The Nuggets entered the playoffs with key injuries affecting their starting line-up. Gary Harris was unavailable until game 6 against the Utah Jazz, and wasn’t able to be his usual self until mid-way through the series with the Clippers. Will Barton, one of the Nuggets best role players, has not seen the floor yet since entering the bubble. With that in mind, what Denver has been able to accomplish has been truly impressive.

The Lakers Brand Is Back

On the other hand, the Lakers have slowly but surely seen their role players step up. Rajon Rondo, or “Playoff Rondo”, is in full effect after coming back from fracturing his right thumb in July and is averaging 10 points and 7 assists off the bench. Rondo has played consistently well for the Lakers and has seemed to have provided a breath of fresh air for a squad that had been searching for a third guy to step up.

Speaking of consistency, Anthony Davis has played great throughout the playoffs after having questionable performances during the seeding games. During the playoffs, Davis has averaged 28, 11 and 4. Meanwhile at 35 years old, LeBron James appears to still be in his prime as he is averaging 27, 10 and 9. This is the first Western Conference Finals appearance for the Lakers since 2010.

Defense Wins Championships

When you look at the individual match-ups in this series, Denver is going to be short handed defensively. The Lakers have a clear answer for Denver’s stars. Davis and LeBron can switch on and off Jokic, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rondo can lead the efforts on containing Murray. Other than that, the Lakers will simply have to do their best to not double-team Jokic in the mid-range and post. Jokic looks for those double teams to come towards him before he assists a teammate for an open three.

For Denver, they’re going to have to make defensive adjustments all series long. They’re going to have to center all of their defensive efforts on guarding LeBron and Davis. It’s been rare for the Lakers makeshift three point shooters to have a high scoring game, so I would say that you can live with the occasional open look being given to Danny Green or Kyle Kuzma. You still haven’t accounted for JaVale McGee. Bol Bol is too inexperienced to throw in there. There’s a slight chance that you’ll see both Jokic and Plumlee out on the floor together. 

I think that if you’re the Nuggets, you stick Jokic on Davis, and Jerami Grant on LeBron. I think that you can expect a heavy dose of Paul Millsap to help defend LeBron and Davis. Michael Malone has slowly been giving Millsap heavier minutes as the playoffs have gone on. Another player that could see more minutes for the same purposes is Torrey Craig.

With that said, don’t be surprised if Michael Porter Jr doesn’t see the floor that much throughout the series. MPJ played over 30 minutes in only one game against the Clippers. In the Nuggets and Clippers game seven, MPJ played just under 15 minutes. MPJ has proven to be a defensive liability and not worth the playing time if he’s having an off night offensively.

Team Chemistry is Understated in Today’s Game

When you have a team that plays for each other like the Denver Nuggets, you always have a chance. The team chemistry on the Nuggets is beautiful. However, the Lakers have tremendous team chemistry as well. It hasn’t been mentioned as much because we have grown accustomed to seeing LeBron leading his teams to high mountain tops like it’s nothing.

This series will be the toughest challenge that any player on the Nuggets roster will have seen in their basketball careers, with the exception maybe going to Millsap. I believe that the inexperience factor will be exposed early and often.

Efficiency is Key

I’m not at all worried about LeBron and Davis getting theirs. The Lakers biggest weakness on the offensive and defensive end is the perimeter. If somehow Green, KCP or another role player can find their rhythm from three, that would make the Lakers even scarier. Rondo isn’t known for his shooting efficiency, but he can have the occasional 20 point game as he did in game three against the Rockets. The Lakers have enough role players that you can expect at least one of them to step up and have a good scoring night.

For Denver, Jokic is going to have huge defensive assignments as previously explained; he’ll also have to make his presence known offensively. It will be absolutely critical for Murray to be efficient from the start, and with that I do worry. In this series, it might be too late if Murray doesn’t start being effective offensively until after the Nuggets are down three to one. Harris and Grant will also have to knock down their open looks.

It’s really tough for me to say that the Lakers will lose this series, yet my heart doesn’t want me to write off Denver. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Lakers win in five, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Denver force a game seven. I’ll settle in the middle and say Lakers in six. LeBron and Davis are just too good together.

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