When the Western Conference finals open Tuesday night in Denver, it will be the revamped Los Angeles Lakers against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets, who have been among the most consistent NBA teams this season.
It will pit a resurgent Anthony Davis against two-time MVP Nikola Jokic with subplots featuring ageless wonder LeBron James, mercurial guard Jamal Murray and a cast of role players looking to become X-factors in this rematch from the 2020 playoff bubble.
How do you see these teams trying to slow down Davis and Jokic?
BT: To start, it'll probably be a one-on-one matchup, Davis going at and defending Jokic and Jokic defending Davis. And it's going to be beautiful to watch. When Davis is on his game, the Lakers have been difficult to beat in the playoffs. In 12 games, he has averaged 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds (tops in the playoffs), 2.7 assists and 3.3 blocks (also tops in the playoffs). Jokic has been otherworldly in the playoffs for the Nuggets. He averaged a triple-double of 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists in the second-round series against the Phoenix Suns. He shot 59.4% from the field and 44.4% from three-point range. But during the regular season, it was pretty much a standoff between the two. The play of these two likely will determine the outcome of the series.
DW: In some ways, stopping AD is a cleaner strategy. You can double team, you can make it really hard for him to get the ball by crowding the paint and you can take your chances with the Lakers' perimeter players shooting and cutting to the basket. Jokic is way different because he's functionally Denver's point guard. He can kill a team and shoot only seven times. I think it can be tougher to stop a player's ability to create for others than it is to stop someone from scoring.
AG: Few opponents have guarded Davis as often as Jokic, and vice versa. Yet neither has had much success stopping the other, which leads to the question of how the teams will mix up their coverages if playing straight-up defense is not cutting it. One NBA scout believed that the best way to slow the big men might be to let them score in bunches, effectively testing their conditioning to keep it up. Let's quickly back up to put the challenge in context. Jokic has guarded Davis on 114 possessions this season, per NBA data collected by cameras in each arena that track player movement. The Lakers have scored 115 points on those possessions, with Davis making 20 of his 32 shots (62.5%) and committing only two turnovers. To Jokic's credit, he has defended without fouling, with Davis shooting only one free throw over those 114 possessions. Switching sides, on 119 possessions this season when guarded by Davis, Jokic has turned the ball over only three times while shooting 64%, including 15 of 18 inside the three-point arc.
Do you think LeBron James, at the end of his 20th NBA season, has enough gas in the tank to deliver for the team? Or enough role players to ease the pressure on him?
BT: Even at 38 and 20 years in, LeBron James has been a marvel. He never seems to tire after all these years. Because the Lakers had three days off before the start of this series and arrived a day early to practice in the mile-high altitude of Denver, he'll be just fine. Though playing games every other day can take a toll, James always seems to find a way. He takes great care of his body and his mental preparation can always overcome what he might lack physically. And because the Lakers are deeper now and have better role players, they can rest James just enough to stay connected to the Nuggets.
DW: To the latter point, it's the best argument for him still having enough gas. He's been able to lean on Anthony Davis, to get big quarters out of Austin Reaves and D'Angelo Russell. There's the opportunity for him to do less than he's done in previous championship runs and still win. I had someone close to LeBron tell me that he's never seen James need to take over less than he has this postseason. The issue becomes, as the levels go up and the challenges increase, can the Lakers' role guys rise to the challenge? I don't think I've seen enough from James these two rounds to bet on him winning three games or so in a series with monster performances. If the Lakers advance, it'll be more collaborative.
AG: After almost 20 years since being drafted, it's still unwise to bet against James. His basketball acumen might be unmatched. Those who know the league rave about his ability to pick his spots within games. The Lakers' role players he'll depend on haven't been on the stage of a conference finals before — but then again, many of Denver's haven't either.
Aside from the play of the big men and LeBron, who do you see as potential X-factors in the series?
DW: The Lakers' guards — Russell, Reaves and Dennis Schroder. For Denver, it's got to be Michael Porter Jr. His size and shooting could really disrupt the Lakers' ability to play their three-guard lineup that they used to close out the Warriors in Game 6.
BT: For the Lakers, the question in the playoffs has been who will be their third scorer. It has been Reaves, Russell, Schroder, Rui Hachimura and Lonnie Walker IV at times. In this series, the Lakers might need at least two of them to step into the void. The Nuggets have a bonafide second weapon in guard Jamal Murray, who has averaged 25.9 points and shot 39.5% from beyond the arc in the playoffs. Michael Porter Jr. is the wild card for the Nuggets. He is talented and fearless, willing to take the big three-pointer at any time.
AG: I look at the role players who have given each team an edge so far and wonder how effectively they can continue. For the Lakers, it's Russell, Reaves and Hachimura. In the postseason, Denver scores 122.6 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor, compared to just 102.1 when he sits, a massive gulf the Nuggets need to fill somehow to advance. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope helped Denver close out Phoenix with his work on both ends and has a championship, won in 2020 with the Lakers, that gives him a ton of credibility within the locker room. Off Denver's bench, I look at Bruce Brown and Christian Braun. A few years ago with Brooklyn, Brown could be a devastating small-ball center, so he knows how to get creative offensively, and defensively he's tough-nosed. (If he reminds you of the Clippers' do-everything spark plug Terance Mann, there's a reason — they've been friends since high school.) Many rookies play as if on their heels, but Braun has superb defensive instincts, which combined with his 6-foot-7 height makes him a candidate to rotate defensive assignments against multiple positions. Braun was 2 when James was drafted; now, could they match up?
In the battle of coaching wits, Darvin Ham has performed well in his first season with the Lakers. Meanwhile, Michael Malone is again on the cusp of getting the Nuggets to the NBA Finals. Who has the advantage?
DW: Malone certainly has the experience, but I've been really impressed with Darvin Ham's postseason. The way the Lakers coaching staff has game planned for Memphis and Golden State has been superb, and against Steve Kerr, a master of adjustments, Ham made all the right choices — from inserting Walker into the rotation to switching the starters for Game 6. I think this battle is much closer than people might've thought two months ago.
AG: Scouts and a coach I spoke with felt the biggest question facing Ham was how to guard Murray, the 1B scoring option to Jokic's 1A. Might that mean using Jarred Vanderbilt early, to blunt Murray's rhythm, before putting Reaves on him for the majority of the halves? For Malone, it's how to score effectively inside against a Lakers defense that has allowed playoff opponents to shoot only 61% when at the rim, the third-best defense there among playoff teams. Getting out and running in transition is one way to avoid the Lakers' length.
BT: At this stage of the playoffs, there is no such thing as who has the advantage. For Ham and Malone to get their teams to the Western Conference finals means they have done an outstanding job so far. But for a first-year coach, Ham has improved all season and has gotten better in the playoffs. He'll have the Lakers ready.
Anything else to consider before these teams open the series?
AG: Can the Lakers hurt Denver from deep? Denver has allowed its playoff opponents to shoot only 29% on corner three-pointers so far, the second-best mark among playoff teams. And though Denver opponents are shooting much better on three-pointers outside of the corners, they're also averaging among the fewest attempts there. Los Angeles is shooting 38% from the corners. One more factor is the possession battle. Denver wins through its offense. The Lakers will need to limit the Nuggets' possessions, yet they turn the ball over at one of the postseason's lowest rates while also grabbing a high rate of rebounds on their misses.
DW: The Lakers have followed the same script every series — win Game 1, win at home, and close it out in Game 6. Their play in Los Angeles has to continue if they want to unseat the best team in the West. And in Denver, they need to get to the free-throw line — it can slow down the game, which matters even more at altitude.
BT: The magic formula for the Lakers in the playoffs has been to take the first game in the series and then put the pressure on the home team. By winning Game 1 at Memphis and then at Golden State, the Lakers snatched the home-court advantage from both, opened a 3-1 lead in those series and won the series 4-2. Can the Lakers win Game 1 against the Nuggets in Denver?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.