The Western Conference Semifinals were headlined by a dramatic comeback and a tightly contested but ultimately one-sided series. The conference finals matchup is unexpected, but it promises to be captivating.
(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
The Lakers lost their first game against the Houston Rockets by fifteen points before storming back to win four straight games — including a blowout Game 5 where they won 119-96. Describing the Nuggets as comeback kings is somehow an understatement, as they erased three double-digit deficits in games five, six and seven to complete a 3-1 series comeback against the Clippers. They are the first team to complete two 3-1 comebacks in the same postseason.
The Lakers won the season series 3-1 against the Nuggets, with the overtime game in February being most indicative of the upcoming series. Both teams played their stars and full rotations, in a game that was decided by two three-pointers from Anthony Davis late in overtime. The clash between big man superstars Davis and Nikola Jokić will be the highlight. But the Denver scoring machine Jamal Murray and Lakers maestro Lebron James will greatly impact the series as well.
Despite the Houston Rockets having the best playoff defense heading into the series, the Lakers exploited the size mismatch and poured in baskets. Lebron and AD combined for 51.2 points per game in the series, scoring in bunches at the rim with subpar rim protection from Houston’s small-ball lineups. Replicating this consistent scoring will be tougher against the Nuggets, who field more traditional lineups with big men like Jokić and Mason Plumlee.
Rajon Rondo was a revelation after returning from injury, averaging 10.6 points, 7.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game, including an outing of 21 points and 9 assists in Game 3. His playmaking was crucial when Lebron rested, preventing the offense from stagnating. The offense was also bolstered by hot three-point shooting from Markieff Morris, and Danny Green, who both shot 40 per cent or more from three-point range in at least two games.
Denver is the worst remaining defensive team in the playoffs, but the Lakers hot three-point shooting will have to continue for them to succeed. The Nuggets will look to pack the paint and leave unreliable shooters such as Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma open. If the Lakers are not hitting open shots, scoring in the crowded paint will be a far more difficult task than it was against the undersized Rockets.
Denver defeated two of the top three offenses in the playoffs by virtue of their unbreakable resolve. Despite being down by double digits in the last three games against the Clippers, they always rallied back in the second half because of Nikola Jokić’s offensive prowess. In Game 6, he scored 34 points and dished out 7 assists. The Clippers limited him to 16 points in Game 7, but “the Joker” served up 13 assists en route to a 104-89 victory.
The Clippers lack of quality big men played a factor in their inability to stop Jokić, and it is an area where the Lakers reign supreme. AD was part of the All-Defensive First Team this season, and Dwight Howard is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Both of these players will play physical and demanding defense on Jokić, making him earn his baskets and tiring him out in the process.
Denver’s offensive firepower is also fueled by star Murray. He scored 20 or more points in each of their wins against the Clippers, including a 40-point eruption in Game 7. Against the Jazz, he was the heart of the offense, scoring 50, 42 and 50 points over a three-game stretch and averaging 31.6 points for the series. If he recovers his scoring magic from the first round, the Lakers will be in for a defensively turbulent series.
The Lakers gained valuable experience stopping high-scoring guards such as Portland’s Damian Lillard, and Houston’s James Harden and Russell Westbrook. They held Lillard to 24.3 points in the series, well under his 30.0 points per game during the season. Similarly, they disrupted Harden, who scored only 29.4 points per game compared to 34.3 during the season. Lastly, Westbrook was limited to 19.8 points per game, far below his 27.2 point regular-season mark.
The Lakers have the personnel to defend both of Denver’s stars, but limiting both Jokić and Murray is a tall task. On the other hand, the Nuggets defense will also have their hands full preventing Lebron and AD from asserting their will on offense. Denver’s mental toughness is unmatched, but the Lakers field the two best players in the series.
The series outcome will largely depend on the role players’ performances, but the combination of Lebron and AD should oust this commendable Nuggets team in six games.
Graphic: Creative Commons | RMTip21