The NBA’s conference finals have arrived and the absence of the game’s elite stars is the most notable surprise. Make a list of the game’s top eight stars and only two of them will be participating.
No Giannis. No Kawhi. No Harden. No Luka. And of course, no Steph Curry or Kevin Durant.
The two remaining elite players happen to play in the same threads: LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Laker superstars who each were coronated First Team All-NBA on Wednesday.
Ring Number 4. For LeBron James, it’s just sitting out on a silver platter now.
For however long LeBron James continues playing, he will never have an NBA title lying there waiting for him to claim it as clearly as this one. No disrespect to the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics or Miami Heat, but at this point the Lakers have to be considered massive favorites to win the championship.
The team with the best regular-season record, the Milwaukee Bucks, has been eliminated. The defending champion Raptors are out, too. The five-time Western Conference champion Warriors are taking a gap year. The Rockets were outclassed by James’ Lakers in five quick games. And the player who dominated last year’s postseason, Kawhi Leonard, was just excused by the Denver Nuggets.
As a result, the biggest obstacle left in LeBron’s way is Nikola Jokic.
Nikola Jokic may not be our idea of what a basketball superstar should look like, but he’s the best non-Laker left in these playoffs. A big man match-up between him and Anthony Davis – the First Team and Second Team centers on the All-NBA team – should be a treat for fans who thought post play was dead.
The Nuggets and Lakers find themselves in a Conference Finals matchup, but took two completely different paths.
Jokic and the Nuggets were on the brink of elimination six times this postseason.
Mike Conley, without a Nuggets defender in his general vicinity, rose for an open 3-pointer that, had he made it, would’ve ended Denver’s season in late August with a first-round extinction at the hands of the sixth-seeded Jazz. The shot rolled out after being half way down.
The Nuggets, once down 3-1 in that series, survived. Then they went down 3-1 again to the Clippers and — you might’ve heard — somehow survived again, outscoring the Clippers by 64 cumulative points in the final three second halves and erasing double-digit deficits in Games 5, 6 and 7.
The Lakers were met with little threats to their existence, making quick work of the Blazers and Rockets thanks to their stifling defense.
Denver’s resiliency is what is most noteworthy. The Lakers were up 3-1 on the Blazers and Rockets, and it felt like both teams, perhaps unable to see a path up the mountain and tired of the bubble life, laid down. You could actually argue their spirit left in Game 4, not 5. The Lakers easily put both to sleep.
The Nuggets won’t succumb as easily. You tend to believe you can escape certain death when you’ve done so before. Denver has won all six of its elimination games in these playoffs and, in five of the six, climbed back from double-digit, mid-game holes. The Lakers are heavy title favorites now, but Denver can’t be treated like some pushover. Los Angeles needs to give them their undivided attention. The gas pedal must remain down against Denver.
Now let’s get into some of the details of the matchup.
Biggest Lakers question: How much Davis at center?
The Lakers previous round against the Houston Rockets small ball lineup meant Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee were benched.
You would think that being matched up with the Denver Nuggets tall roster that both Lakers bigs would get substantial playing time. But will that be the case?
In the four regular-season games between these teams, Anthony Davis played 150 total minutes. Here’s the quick breakdown of the Lakers’ success within them.
- Davis on the court with JaVale McGee: 52 minutes, Nuggets outscored the Lakers by 18
- Davis on the court with Dwight Howard: 42 minutes, net zero
- Davis on the court with neither: 56 minutes, Lakers outscored the Nuggets by 34
The numbers speak for themselves, when matched up with the Nuggets, the Lakers have been at their best when Davis is the lone big man.
It should come as no surprise. In his career, against better competition, Davis’ teams have traditionally performed better when he slides to center.
Davis prefers to play the 4, and Frank Vogel has respected that all season long, until he was forced to make a change.
The Houston microball matchup made the choice easy for Frank Vogel. The Rockets target centers and run them off the court. Howard had two bad Game 1 fouls on James Harden and vanished. McGee disappeared soon after. Vogel turned to Markieff Morris, and here were the results:
- Davis on the floor with Morris in the series: Lakers plus-35 in 57 minutes
- Davis on the floor without Morris in the series: Lakers minus-6 in 130 minutes
Morris was incredible against Houston, and likely won’t play at that level again for the rest of the playoffs. But this isn’t about Morris.
The strategy of playing Morris isn’t about Morris, it’s about Davis.
He plays power forward because he prefers to label himself that way and, since he’s Davis, he’s great at it. He’d be fine at any position. But center, in 2020, is his natural spot.
He can shoot 3s, defend all five positions on the switch, terrorize from the help side and bang with any big body on the interior. Nikola Jokic made a strong case for best center in the NBA during his second-round destruction of the Clippers. But it’s actually Davis, when he willingly shifts to the spot he should probably play full-time.
When McGee has been on the floor in this matchup, he became a lane clogger, allowing Jokic to just wait in the paint, forcing Davis into a double team, or take a heavily contested fade-away.
With McGee/Howard on the floor alongside Davis, this is a scene you will see often. A double team from the weak side with Jokic hanging around the rim.
Vogel’s decision to make Davis the center for the bulk of the minutes will be a key to this series. Having Morris, or Kuzma play the 4 will help space the floor on offense, and drastically help the defense when Murray calls for multiple screens at the top of the key.
Biggest Nuggets question: How well do they shoot on tough 3s?
The Nuggets have eight wins and six losses in these playoffs. In those losses, they’ve made a pedestrian 34.5 percent of their 3-pointers. In those wins, they’ve made a scorching 42.6 percent of them.
What does that translate into points-wise? Nine per game. The Nuggets, in both the wins and losses, have taken around 34 3s per game. That’s equated to 11.5 makes in the losses and 14.5 in the wins — a nine-point difference that has made the difference, considering their razor-thin margin in both series.
Jamal Murray has exploded onto the scene. He reached 50 points twice in the Jazz series. He had 40 in Game 7 against the Clippers. He’s averaging an eye-popping 27.1 points on 50.2 percent shooting, 49.1 percent from 3 and 91.3 percent from the line in 14 playoff games.
But the Lakers have faced his type all playoffs long. The Lakers bottled up a scorching Damian Lillard in the first round. In round two the silenced James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
They brilliantly executed trapping and double-team schemes to funnel the ball away from them and into the hands of more preferable opponents.
You can bet Murray will see a more-together and focused defensive approach than he saw from the Jazz or wilting Clippers. Go watch some of Murray’s 3s the first two rounds. There were some unconscionable breakdowns, defenders repetitively going under screens against the hottest shooter in the league. The Lakers, locked in on that side right now, will do much less of that.
The Lakers have the blueprint to stop electrifying guards.
Jokic is an entirely different challenge than Murray or just about any player in the league.
Jokic is the best passing center the league has ever seen? That is an opinion that is quickly becoming a fact. His 13 assist Game 7 against the Clippers was a master piece. He found open teammates for 3’s, the cutting man for layups, and the occasional no look dime.
But Jokic has always been a nightly triple-double threat. What has changed in these playoffs — and what has taken Denver’s offense to the next level, besides the Murray evolution — is Jokic’s 3-point shooting.
Jokic is a career 34 percent 3-point shooter. He sat below 32 percent this season. He’s capable but not a red-alert threat from back there. You don’t feel terrible when he goes to the pick-and-pop game and flings up one of those rainbows.
However that has changed recently. Jokic has made 44 percent of his 3s through 14 playoff games (37 of 84).
His 3 point shooting success has translated directly to Nuggets wins and losses.
In the six losses, Jokic is a more normal 31.4 percent, his exact regular-season clip. But in the eight wins, he’s 26-of-49, an unmanageable 53.1 percent.
That could be the story of the Lakers series. If Murray and Jokic keep pouring in 3s at such a high level, Denver will keep it close and perhaps have a chance to steal it. But if they revert to their regular-season percentages in the mid-to-low 30s, it’s hard to envision them keeping up.
Another Nuggets Question: Who Guards LeBron?
Two players who absolutely will be factors in this matchup are Jerami Grant and Gary Harris. They likely will be the primary LeBron defenders, with an assist from Torrey Craig off the bench. That group showed with their work against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the second round that they can handle themselves against big, high-scoring wings.
It seems like a capable game plan at first glance. If they stopped Kawhi and George, slowing down LeBron isn’t out of the realm of possibilities. But then you remember that the Lakers don’t play that isolation heavy ball that the Clippers do.
Slowing down LeBron the scorer is just one piece of the puzzle. LeBron is an offensive system by himself. He creates for those who can’t create for themselves. The pick and roll with Davis will have Jokic on his heels all series long.
So while the Nuggets have capable defenders, LeBron isn’t losing sleep over 6’4″ Gary Harris.
Key matchup: Kyle Kuzma vs. Michael Porter Jr.
Not AD vs Jokic. Not LeBron vs Jamal Murray. Nope it is a battle of the youngsters: Kyle Kuzma and Michael Porter Jr.
Both Kuzma and Porter Jr. play similar roles for their teams. Capable of being that explosive 3rd scorer, but neither are consistent or efficient enough.
Porter Jr. has the higher long-term offensive upside. He is more likely to expose for a 25 point outing. But he also has games where he is a non impact player.
When Porter’s offensive game isn’t there, he offers nothing else. He often looks lifeless on the court and unengaged if he doesn’t get his touches.
Kuzma, who has also struggled offensively in the bubble, has been surprisingly reliable on the defensive end.
He takes fewer than 10 shots a night in his 25 minutes. He’s been in double digits five times but hasn’t reached 20 points once. He’s been steady, finding his moments in the background while committing to multi-position, high-energy individual and team defense on the other end. The Lakers have a sturdy 102.5 defensive rating in his 244 minutes.
In simple terms, he has been more impactful than Porter so far in these playoffs.
Both players, despite their flaws and occasionally questionable decision-making, are key rotational cogs on competing conference finalists. If either has a monster series — or a disastrous one — it could heavily tilt the odds.
X-factors: Paul Millsap and Rajon Rondo
There is always a balancing act in life. To combat the important matchup between youths, here are the series X-Factors.
Rondo is 34. Millsap is 35. Both are former All-Stars. Both are far past their primes. Both are still capable of flashback stretches. Both are now liable to sometimes become a detriment to their team when struggling.
Millsap has the third-worst plus/minus of any Nuggets player in the postseason. Denver is a minus-47 in his 332 minutes. The defensive rating in Millsap’s court time — cover your eyes — is a team-worst 118.1. Offenses have been detonating against Denver when he’s on the court, often through targeted attacks at him.
But why does Nuggets Head Coach Mike Malone stick with the veteran? Take a look at the Clippers series.
The Clippers series turned when Millsap, a respected, no-nonsense veteran, went toe-to-toe with Marcus Morris Sr. (Markieff’s twin) in the middle of Game 5 and then, funneling that emotion from the tussle into fuel, scored 14 points in a series-changing third quarter that sparked a win and eventually two more victories. The Nuggets were a plus-19 with Millsap on the floor in Game 7.
I can sing the same tune about Rondo and the Lakers.
The Lakers were often at their worst this regular season with Rondo on the floor. But then they got a taste of what life was like without him in the first month of the bubble. J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters were not the answer at the last guard spot.
Rondo re-emerged in the Houston series and played his most impactful basketball in a Lakers uniform. Playing next to LeBron, and also in his absence as a lead ballhandler, Rondo had 35 assists in five games, keyed the Game 2 and 3 wins with his defense and even hit eight 3s to punish the Rockets for leaving him on the perimeter.
Which Rondo and which Millsap will show up in this series?
The answer to that question could be the key that unlocks the series win.
Denver has been a fun watch over the past month of play. Murray and Jokic form maybe the league’s most unheralded rising duo. But the Lakers still have the two best players in the series and probably the two best players remaining in the playoffs.
The Murray and Jokic story comes to an end here in the Conference Finals. I expect the games to be competitive and exciting in crunch time. But in the end the experience of LeBron James, the talent that is Anthony Davis, and the defensive ability of the Lakers will be too much for the Nuggets to overcome.
Lakers in 5 because it hasn’t failed me yet.