The folks who cited the Orlando Bubble as an aberration must be feeling pretty silly right about now, as the 2023 NBA playoffs’ conference finals slate is a mirror image of the one that played out in 2020.
Out West, the powerhouse Denver Nuggets face the dynasty-killing Los Angeles Lakers on ESPN. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the title-favorite and second-seeded Boston Celtics play the NBA’s version of a Cinderella story in the eighth-seeded Miami Heat on TNT.
We’re going to focus on the Western Conference finals, with the other preview set to come out tomorrow. Here are five storylines to watch when the Nuggets square off against the Lakers.
1. A Clash of Titans
Basketball, in its essence, is a team game. And as a result, very rarely does it come down to one individual matchup. But every once in a while, you get a clash between two contrasting styles that is so stark that the victor of the heavyweight bout may do enough on their lonesome to swing the series.
The main event of this title card between Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokić may be just that.
On one end of the rope, you have Davis – the watchful guardian of the most improved defense (first in adjusted defensive rating differential from the regular season to playoffs). On the other end, you have Jokić – the ringleader of the postseason’s top offense (first in adjusted offensive rating at plus-4.95 points per 100 possessions more than the league-average team).
Davis shut down the interior in the first two rounds of the postseason. Through 12 games, he defended 20.9 field goal attempts per game (second among all players that appeared in the playoffs) and held opponents to a field goal percentage 9.5% below their usual average (that is fourth among the 80 players that defend at least 10 shots a game, per NBA.com).
The thing is, Davis has yet to guard anyone like Jokić in these playoffs. The two-time MVP has already dismantled a murderer’s row cast of characters in Rudy Gobert, Deandre Ayton and Karl-Anthony Towns. Through two rounds, Jokic posted historically great offensive numbers, averaging a near 30-point triple-double (30.7 PPG/12.8 RPG/9.7 APG) on 62.6% true shooting.
Can Davis guard Joker without needing any additional help? He’ll likely have to because Jokić’s vision and passing are so prolific that he can quickly punish opponents for sending extra help in his direction. Like this:
2. The Next Laker Legend?
The new blueprint for building a great team may be the formula of surrounding two stars with a cavalcade of role players of varying skill sets. And that’s what Los Angeles has done to mold their team around Davis and LeBron James.
By constructing your team in this fashion, you give yourself a better chance against a wider array of different styles because you can just lean on the role players who are the most well-equipped to deal with certain types of opponents.
In Round 1, the Lakers rode trade deadline acquisition Rui Hachimura to the tune of 25.5 minutes per game because his robust frame and credible outside shooting made him the perfect counter for the Memphis Grizzlies. Against the Golden State Warriors, it was Lonnie Walker IV who saved the day by contributing his speed and offensive punch for 21.2 MPG in the last five games of the series.
Who will be the Lakers’ next hero? The roster is chock-full of potential difference makers like Hachimura, Walker, Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Troy Brown Jr., Malik Beasley, Dennis Schroder and Wenyen Gabriel. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see any one of these fellows solidify themselves in the annals of Purple and Gold history with memorable conference finals.
3. Denver’s Biggest Weakness
They say that teams often take on the identity of their best player. Well, in Denver’s case, they have certainly taken on Jokić’s greatest weakness as a basketball player: his lack of rim protection.
During the regular season, the Nuggets gave up the fifth-highest number of points in the paint per 100 possessions (53.0). This presents a problem against the Lakers, who pride themselves on being a great interior scoring team. They are fourth this postseason in points in the paint per 100 (50.0).
One step Denver has taken to mask its interior deficiency is having its weak-side off-ball defenders help off their man and sink into the paint. This leaves the Nuggets vulnerable to skip passes to shooters in the corner. But since they often send two defenders at the ball handler, only really good skip passers can burn them for this tactic.
In the second round, neither Devin Booker nor Kevin Durant proved adept enough as a facilitator to consistently do so.
However, James is one of the greatest skip passers who ever lived. So, if he’s the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, he could cause some real problems for Denver’s defense.
On the flip side, though, the Lakers aren’t a good 3-point shooting team (11th in the playoffs in 3-point percentage and 25th in the regular season). So, can Los Angeles’ corner shooters make Denver pay for leaving them relatively wide open?
If they can, it could cause Denver to stop packing the paint – subsequently opening up the lane for Los Angeles to feast.
4. The Nuggets Aren’t the Warriors
During their series against Stephen Curry and the Warriors, the Lakers deployed a “top-and-lock” strategy designed to push shooters off the 3-point line and funnel them into Davis’ stomping grounds in the paint.
This technique worked for two reasons:
- 1) Davis is one of the best defenders on the planet and can completely fortify the restricted area on his lonesome.
- 2) The player setting the screens (typically Draymond Green or Kevon Looney) that the Lakers were top-and-locking was usually a non-shooter, so it was okay for Davis to be sagging off.
Along with being one of the best passing big men ever, Jokić is also one of the best shooting centers of all time. During the regular season, he converted on 61.6% of his midrange attempts and 38.3% of his 3-pointers.
Will the Lakers try to deploy the top-and-lock strategy they used against the Warriors in this Nuggets series?
And if they do, does Jokić just straight-up burn them by making it rain from outside? Or is Davis somehow quick enough to recover back to the Joker and meaningfully impact his shot?
5. A Question of Continuity
We mentioned that this series was a clash in contrasting styles, but it also represents a battle of differing ideologies.
Every one of Denver’s top-eight players in postseason minutes started out the season as a Nugget. Jokić, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and coach Michael Malone were all a part of the team back in 2020. (Aaron Gordon came over the following season and former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is in his first season in Denver.)
In fact, Jokić, Murray and Malone have spent every season together since 2016, when Murray was drafted (Malone and Jokić have been together since 2015).
The Nuggets are the epitome of continuity in the modern era. And in the first two rounds, they vanquished two teams (the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns) that were sorely lacking in this category thanks to massive superstar trades they made in the last calendar year.
The Lakers are the antithesis of continuity. Four of their players in the top-10 in postseason minutes did not start the season as Lakers (hell, they didn’t even start 2023 as Lakers). And only James and Davis remain from the group that bested Denver in 2020.
Yet, what did they do in the first round? Oh yeah, they beat two continuity-rich units in the Grizzlies and Warriors. Does continuity really matter? We may get our answer by the end of this series.
Series Win Probability: Who Has the Edge?
In terms of the moneyline, sportsbooks have the top-seeded Nuggets, who have home-court advantage at Ball Arena, as the best bets (-145) and the seventh-seeded Lakers as the underdogs (+120).
But what is our model’s prediction for who will advance?
This model calculates each team’s chances of making it to the NBA Finals and winning the title outright, based on thousands of simulations.
It incorporates our adjusted team ratings (including overall adjusted team rating, adjusted offensive rating and adjusted defensive rating), accounts for recency bias (so, it gives more weight to teams playing well) and for how well teams performed against other good teams.
In this case, the model gives the edge to the Nuggets. Denver owns the second-best adjusted team rating in the NBA (behind the Celtics) heading into the series (+5.10) while the Lakers are 13th at +1.69 despite their league-best postseason improvement on the defensive end.
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