After a month of playoff basketball, we’re down to 4 teams. For most, it probably isn’t the 4 teams you were expecting, but if the 2023 postseason has taught us anything it’s to expect the unexpected. Not many people could have forecasted the Los Angeles Lakers, who started the season 2-10 and made an array of trade deadline moves to give themselves a semblance of a chance to just make the playoffs would have the opportunity in mid-May to make a Finals run, but here we are. For the Denver Nuggets, despite being the best team in the West all season, they too were deemed to be a ‘paper tiger’ by many skeptics, who needed to ‘see it to believe it’ with their core, as silly as that may seem in hindsight with how dominantly they’ve reached their 5th ever Conference Finals in franchise history. Of course, these two franchises have a storied past together. The last 3 times the Nuggets have made the Conference Finals (2020, 2009, 1985) they came face-to-face with a Lakers team that bested them, always falling just short of the franchise’s first-ever Finals berth at the hands of the big-market, far-too-dominant Lakers teams.
Even outside of history, the players on these two teams are very familiar with each other. Thomas Bryant was a Laker in February when LeBron James broke the all-time scoring record. He’s now a Nugget. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a Laker when they beat the Nuggets in the 2020 Disney World Bubble and then went on to win the NBA title. The cores of both sides are also familiar foes. The Nuggets will be led by their intrepid two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, alongside his two trusty side-kicks in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — all 3 of whom have grown up since 2020 — and the Lakers are still a team centered around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who have both also done their own ‘growing up’ but in an aging-this-might-be-their-last-best-chance type of way.
The rosters around them have evolved, KCP is on the other side, as I mentioned, and Denver now has Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown, two savvy off-ball movers who can hold their own defensively to fill out their rotation. The Lakers, thanks to tons of mid-season retooling have virtually completely overhauled their roster around Davis and James with guys like Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, and even Lonnie Walker rounding out their rotation.
That said, it’s hard to use their 2020 playoff matchup as any sort of evidence to see how the current 2023 versions of each team stack up against one another. Too much has changed.
So let’s try and dissect what key factors will decide this series, and hopefully come away with some sort of conclusion.
|OFF RATING||19th (113.9)||5th (116.8)|
|DEF RATING||12th (113.2)||15th (113.5)|
|NET RATING||16th (+0.7)||6th (+3.3)|
|POST ALL-STAR OFF RATING||14th (116.2)||17th (114.7)|
|POST ALL-STAR DEF RATING||4th (111.3)||15th (114.4)|
|POST ALL-STAR NET RATING||6th (+4.9)||16th (+0.4)|
|TRUE-SHOOTING PERCENTAGE||17th (58.2%)||3rd (60.1%)|
|PACE||4th (101.92)||24th (98.74)|
|TURNOVER PERCENTAGE||11th (13.7%)||23rd (14.7%)|
|3-POINTERS MADE||24th (10.8)||18th (11.8)|
|3-POINT PERCENTAGE||25th (31.2%)||4th (37.9%)|
|FREE-THROW RATE||2nd (0.2999)||20th (0.259)|
|OFF RATING||8th (111.6)||1st (118.7)|
|DEF RATING||1st (106.5)||5th (110.1)|
|NET RATING||3rd (+5.1)||1st (+8.6)|
|ASSIST PERCENTAGE||8th (59.6%)||10th (58.4%)|
|TURNOVER PERCENTAGE||6th (12.8%)||1st (11.7%)|
|PACE||6th (99.88)||11th (96.27)|
|3-POINTERS MADE||13th (10.4)||10th (11.3)|
|3-POINT PERCENTAGE||11th (33.1%)||2nd (37.9%)|
|OFFREBOUND PERCENTAGE||12th (26.6%)||4th (31.1%)|
|TRUE-SHOOTING PERCENTAGE||7th (56.9%)||2nd (59.1%)|
|FREE-THROW RATE||4th (0.274)||7th (0.256)|
|OPP FREE-THROW RATE||1st (0.170)||9th (0.250)|
FACTOR #1: How The Lakers Guard Jokic
Guarding and defending superstar offensive hubs is an impossible task. You’re always going to give up something. Especially when the superstar offensive hub is one of the greatest playmakers of all time in Jokic. The common thought process is that because of how much Jokic can kill you with his playmaking, which in turn helps his teammates find a rhythm and creates an array of other fires that you have to worry about putting out defensively, you’d rather play him in single coverage, 1-on-1, and force him to be a scorer. That way, it puts pressure on his teammates to be the creators, and if you’ve done that against the Nuggets? Well, you’ve successfully won half the battle.
In theory, there’s almost no better defender to give the task of guarding Jokic 1-on-1 than a guy like Anthony Davis, who has played maybe the best defense of his career in these playoffs. Davis’s gigantic frame is enough to contest Jokic’s shots, he’s mobile so he can stick with the always-moving Joker and his long limbs should make it tougher to find passing windows for the wizard-like playmaker.
But again — you’re always going to give up something. Tasking Davis with guarding Jokic in single coverage for 40 minutes a night is not only going to exhaust Davis and make him less of a factor offensively, but it could put him in foul trouble in any given game if Jokic is aggressive in looking to score. Also, Jokic likes to play on the perimeter more and that will draw Davis out of the paint where he’s been an absolute monster of a rim protector in the playoffs so far, averaging over 3 blocks a night in the post-season.
That’s why you need variation.
You can start out with this being the base of your coverage, 1-on-1 Jokic vs AD in the high-post area, with the occasional dig from the nearest defender (the play at the bottom it’s Craig), and then force Joker into tough shots.
This is where you start to get in trouble, though, especially with the way the Lakers depend on Davis’s rim protection in the paint. Jokic is able to play off the ball and draw Davis out. He does the same to Deandre Ayton on this little back-door action with Murray and MPJ.
If the Nuggets start running these delay actions (5 out offense) with Jokic at the top of the key, it’ll be even harder for the Lakers backline to track all that off-ball movement. Or if they start running these high DHOs with any combination of Murray, Jokic, and Porter Jr — it can take away the biggest strength of this Lakers’ defense — Davis’s paint presence.
These above-the-break actions with Murray and Jokic, the 2-man game that includes Pick-n-Rolls, Pick-n-Pops, DHOs, you name it — those are going to be back-breakers for the Lakers. Davis can’t sag off of these actions as he did against Golden State with Draymond Green or Kevon Looney as the screener. He’ll have to respect Jokic as a roller and even as a shooter where he’s knocking down nearly 50% of his threes in the playoffs.
The best thing about the Nuggets’ offense is the variety of things they can flow into from a simple high-post action for Jokic. Have Murray and Porter running split actions, and two guys on the opposite corner waiting for the help-side defense to cave in. It’s so easy for the Nuggets to generate these types of looks, and if Jokic draws Davis out consistently, it can spell trouble for the Lakers’ back line.
How will the Lakers counter this? How much help do they send Jokic’s way? How much daylight will Davis give to Jokic? It’s going to be arguably the most fascinating aspect of this series.
FACTOR #2: How The Nuggets Guard Davis
On the other end, the Nuggets will have their hands full trying to stop Davis as well. The Lakers big man is going to be a serious rolling threat who can put pressure on the rim. While the Warriors had Looney and Green who could serve as rim protectors, the Nuggets have Jokic — who has grown in that department but doesn’t serve as the same defensive threat as those two.
Jokic will most likely get the primary matchup on Davis, but how will the Nuggets guard the Lakers’ pick-n-roll actions that involve Davis?
Are they playing in a deep drop like Looney is in this play?
The tricky thing with that is that Davis is an excellent pull-up shooter, especially from the mid-range where he’s knocking down 52% of his long mid-range shots at 47% of all mid-range attempts in the post-season.
Just like Davis can’t give Jokic space, the same applies the other way around. Can’t give him daylight.
Now the Lakers guards aren’t Kevin Durant, like on this play, but Jokic will have to respect the pull-up shooting of Reaves and Russell — so will we see any high drop like this play here? Maybe, but that makes it much easier for Davis to slip and get to the rim.
Ultimately, the Lakers are an entirely unique challenge defensively for the Nuggets compared to the Timberwolves and Suns. Neither team had the rolling threat that the Lakers do in Davis and neither team had the size on the wings like the Lakers do (I still wish Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid were healthy for that series).
Jokic has been most comfortable in a deep drop this season and most likely, that’s what the Nuggets lean on most, hoping that their on-ball guards can navigate through screens, help on some rear-side contests, and force the Lakers guards into tough shots. Which brings me to my next point.
FACTOR #3: Who Wins The Point-Of-Attack Battle
The Nuggets’ point-of-attack defense has been surprisingly fun in these playoffs, but not to the surprise of me! Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, KCP, Gordon, Murray, and MPJ have all been, in some way or another, pretty positive defenders, especially at the point-of-attack where they are tasked with making crisp rotations on the perimeter, navigating through tons of ball screens, and staying between their man and the rim. It’s been very good stuff. They did a superb job of sending help and loading up against Booker and Durant vs the Suns, forcing them into tough looks, and always positioning another defender at the nail, ready to double-team if necessary.
I’ve also been very pleased with how the Lakers guard rotation has done at the point-of-attack, between Dennis Schroder, who took the bulk of the responsibilities against Steph Curry in the last round, and Jarred Vanderbilt and Austin Reaves who split some time guarding the sharpshooting Warrior as well. It helps that the Lakers’ perimeter guys have been able to play so aggressively, knowing that Davis is there as their back-line rim protector.
But things get interesting for both sides in this series.
The Nuggets love running these split-actions to free up either a shooter or a cutter on the strong side with Jokic as the quarterback. The Lakers need to communicate properly on these or else they will bleed points off of back-door cuts. I’m talking to you, LeBron.
This specific play isn’t a split action, but it goes to show you the work the Lakers’ perimeter defenders will have to work off the ball to stay in front of their man.
On the other side, the Lakers pose a unique challenge for the Nuggets. Against the Suns, you can sag off of TJ Warren or Terrence Ross or Torrey Craig on the weak-side corner, but between Reaves, Schroder, Russell and now Walker, the Lakers have tons of dynamic guards who can create their own shot and create for others. They can all attack a titled defense, 3 of them are awesome PnR ballhandlers, and Reaves and Russell have shown the ability to knockdown both pull-up and catch-and-shoot 3-balls.
If you load up on the strong side like in this play, Reaves, Russell, or Schroder can punish you by making the skip pass to the corner, where one or two of the other guards are waiting and ready to knock down shots.
How much can either side muck up each other’s guard and perimeter play? Can the Lakers stay home on shooters? Can they communicate the switches properly on these back-door and split actions the Nuggets live off of? Can the Nuggets apply pressure to the Lakers guards without fouling? Can they too, stay consistent on rotations?
The guard battle might be as important as the bigs who will be at the center of it all.
FACTOR #4: Will The Lakers Continue To Rely On Small Ball In Non-AD Minutes?
The Lakers are +8.75 with Davis on the floor and -8 with him off the court. Cleaning the Glass has the Lakers at a +31 in the 486 minutes with Davis on the floor — a massive swing when he’s not on.
They haven’t run too many lineups without Davis in the playoffs so far, but the one lineup they’ve leaned on most without their towering presence has been a small one, with James as the defacto Center. It hasn’t worked out well. The only lineup that has played more than 20 minutes together in the post-season for the Lakers and has a negative net rating is, in fact, that small ball lineup.
The Lakers had an inherent size advantage against the Warriors that began to dwindle as the Warriors went smaller and smaller. The Lakers started to counter by going smaller as well but to no fruition.
The Lakers MUST find a solution in the non-AD minutes, especially on defense where they fall off a cliff without him. Could we see them neglect to go small and stay big? Mo Bamba said he’s expected back by the Conference Finals. Maybe we see more Wenyen Gabriel or dare I say, Tristan Thompson?
Either way — it seems like this is a series where the Lakers will need to play bigger rather than smaller, especially with the size of the Nuggets front court being a factor.
FACTOR #5: LeBron Frickin’ James
What, did you think I was going to break down a Lakers playoff series and not talk about LeBron?
The #Year20, 38-year-old King has had an up-and-down postseason so far. In some games, he’s looked a step slow, not as reactive defensively, and not getting to the basket like he used to. But on other nights, including in Game 6 vs the Warriors in Los Angeles, he’ll drop 30 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists on 71.4% shooting from the field. It’s been a mixed bag and I can’t help but think that a lot of that has to do with his nagging foot injury which he is miraculously playing on.
But there are ways the Lakers can use James to their advantage and maybe even make the game easier on him.
By getting him to be the screener in pick-n-roll actions, getting him to use his momentum to get downhill, and finding his teammates.
Above all else, they can use James as a high-post playmaking hub, similar to how the Nuggets use Jokic, getting the Lakers to run split actions and back-door cuts to get his teammates open from a standstill position.
And because James is also one of the greatest playmakers of all time, these cross-court zip passes to the open corner aren’t a problem. He can create those in his sleep.
At his size, with his strength, and his ability to make plays out of the post, no one in the league can guard LeBron in the post in single coverage. It either leads to open shots, like the play above or it leads to easy layups for James if no one helps.
It’ll be interesting to see who the Lakers ask LeBron to guard on defense. He’s not going to be the one chasing around Porter Jr, that’s probably Rui Hachimura or Jarred Vanderbilt. He’s not going to be guarding Jokic, that’s Davis. The most likely outcome is that they throw James on Aaron Gordon — but James we’ll have to make sure not to fall asleep on the off-ball movement that Gordon feasts off of.
Either way — LeBron is going to be a huge factor in this series. And if they can lean into his post-up playmaking more, it can cause some trouble for the Nuggets’ defense.
PREDICTION: Nuggets In 6
The numbers and tape suggest that the Nuggets’ offensive firepower will just be too much for the Lakers to keep up with for a 7 game series. As much as the Lakers do have some defensive wrinkles they can throw Denver’s way in order to make it tough on them — there are just so many options with the way the Nuggets play offensively, that it’ll be tough to stop.
I can just as easily see this series being Lakers in 6 or 7, but in order for that to happen, they’d need an incredible performance from their guards, shooting-wise, to keep up with the Nuggets’ offense and they’d need LeBron to be his all-time self every single game.
It wouldn’t surprise me if that happened, I mean the Lakers have already made it this far, it’s hard to count them out — but as of now, the Nuggets should be favored.