It may not be what we expected, but it’s what we’ve got. The Lakers were supposed to face the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals starting on Friday. But instead of the other LA team making history by finally advancing out of the 2nd round, they made a different type of history by blowing a 3-1 lead and succumbing to the Denver Nuggets in a blowout game 7 loss. Oops.
So, Denver it is.
I think it’s important to get a couple things out of the way before we really dive into the specifics of this matchup. Forget X’s and O’s or personnel for a moment. The Nuggets are a very specific kind of dangerous. They’re clear underdogs in this series, but are playing with house money after winning two series where everyone left them for dead. Their resiliency and ability to come back from 3-1 deficits vs. both the Jazz and the Clippers gives them great confidence they can beat anyone under any circumstance at the exact moment everyone is going to act as though there’s no circumstance under which they’ll beat the current opponent they’re about to face.
The Lakers need to recognize this up front and understand the freedom this allows the Nuggets to play with. That looseness can translate to an ability play as the best version of yourself and really meet any opponent at their own top level. Again, the Lakers need to know the context of this series before it even starts. They cannot read their own press clippings or get caught up in believing they’ve won this series before the games are played. The entire media world is about to pencil them into the Finals and, if the Lakers are silly enough to listen to them, they’re already coming at this all wrong and doing themselves a great disservice.
There’s an idea in sports of “appropriate fear” that, at its essence, equates to a proper level of respect for your opponent1Not to mention the game itself. and understanding that they’re good enough to beat you. If there’s a single point I’d stress to the Lakers before even watching a second of game tape on Denver it’s to have an appropriate fear of the Nuggets. Respect them for the wonderful and talented team they are. Or suffer the consequences when you don’t — like the Clippers just did.
With that out of the way, the Nuggets do represent a particular set of issues strategically and with their personnel. In a way, they take some of the stronger traits of both the Blazers and the Rockets, while adding their own flair with some of the uniqueness of their roster. They have a high powered offense that on one side the coin is driven by a dynmaic scoring guard a la both Portland and Houston.
Jamal Murray has been an absolute killer these playoffs, showing off 3-level scoring where he’s able to knock down threes with ease, but balancing that against getting into the paint to score from floater range and in the restricted area. Murray benefits greatly from having a partner like Jokic to play off of, but Murray’s skill level and technical expertise make him a problem all on his own. He can get hot in a hurry and his shotmaking can turn a game in Denver’s favor in a matter of minutes.
Denver’s ability to space the floor and have a viable scoring/shooting threat at every position on the floor also creates issues. Denver can play a true 5-out system where no individual player can be ignored and every player is capable of either making a 3-pointer, attacking off the dribble, or both. This not only generates great floor spacing, but allows the Nuggets to punish poor rotations and capitalize on the types of 4-on-3 situations they generate out of the P&R or when teams double Jokic or Murray. The Lakers, then, will need to be sharp at the point of attack, but rotate all over the floor without a Westbrook or a non-shooting big to sink off of to make things easier.
And while Murray’s scoring prowess can ignite it all, it is Jokic who is fulcrum of the entire attack. Jokic, too, is a 3 level scorer, but is also the best passing big man in the leauge. He punishes teams as the short roll man in the P&R by spraying passes all over the floor, can force double teams as a post scorer and then beat those with passes to open teammates, and is an expert decision maker in the Nuggets’ dribble handoff game where he’ll either turn those into a P&R or keep the ball and attack a defense that isn’t quite sure if he’s given up the ball or not.
Jokic, then, creates an entire set of problems simply by being on the court. Every Nugget who flanks him is more of a threat because of his passing, but he’s a good enough scorer and foul drawer to compromise your defense all on his own. And when his jumper is falling, there’s really no great answer for him because he’ll either bury long jumpers or use the threat of his 3-point shot to attack closeouts and then score when the help doesn’t come or kick the ball to a wide open teammate when the rotations are on point.
The Lakers, of course, are not helpless in any of this, but I lay everything out the way that I do to ensure we all understand the issues at play here. The Lakers can leverage their own athleticism to make everything I’ve described above harder. They can put size/quickness/length on Jokic to diminish his scoring ability and bother his passing angles. They can use quickness and defensive pressure at the point of attack vs. Murray to limit his 3-point attempts and to funnel him to help where his shots in the paint will be better contested. And they can try to turn Denver’s role players into shot creators rather than finishers.
Offensively they can push the pace and attack Denver’s weaker defenders — particularly Jokic — in P&R’s, and force him into situations where he’s playing in actions where LeBron is handling the ball and AD is the screener. They can use the athleticism in their frontcourt to wear Denver down, attacking the offensive glass and using their vertical spacing to put pressure on the rim with lobs. If LA can effectively live in the paint, it will force the Nuggets to help down, opening up LA’s shooters in the process. There’s triggers the Lakers can pull here to nudge the game in their direction, but it will take discipline and the avoidance of turnovers and the types of mistakes this team can make when they’re not focused.
And, if all that is getting gummed up, the Lakers can always isolate Bron or AD and force Denver to defend them with players who, even at their best, will have trouble keeping both under wraps for a full game, to say nothing of an entire series. This won’t work on every possession, of course, but it if either get their jumpers going they’re just too big a problem for even the best defenses to keep down for extended stretches. It’s just what it is.
In the end, I expect a good series. Denver is really good and they can push the Lakers in specific ways that other opponents have not been able to do. That’s the brilliance Jokic offers and when Murray gets it going and the role players are hitting shots, they are a problem unlike many other teams in the league.
That said, this may just be a series that comes down to whether or not Denver can hang physically vs. a Lakers team that has proven over the course of a season (including 2 playoff rounds) to be able to wear down opponents who do not have the same caliber athletes as them. When you add in the Lakers ability to scheme in ways that optimize their physical advantages (as they did vs. Portland and Houston), things can get trickier for a team like Denver.
And now, a few questions and some other items that I think will be important this series….
1. Vogel has intimated his centers will play a bigger role than they did vs. Houston, but does that mean both JaVale and Dwight will be back in the rotation? Just one? Will Morris continue to start? There’s argument to be made on all sides of this and I’m not sure there’s a wrong direction here. If you told me that AD should defend Jokic and that Morris should start, I’d nod along and say it makes sense — AD is the best defensive big, he covers the most ground and having him defend Jokic opens up different coverages (switching, showing and recovering, dropping) vs. Denver’s P&R and handoff actions.
If you told me that the Lakers had success playing their bigs in a normal rotation this season and that by playing JaVale and Dwight and AD and having them come at Jokic in waves could wear him down and give him different looks to adjust to, I’d see the logic in that too. Maybe there’s a middle ground where only Dwight or only JaVale plays while Morris retains his starting spot. Whichever direction Vogel goes there will be potential positives and drawbacks, but I think he deserves some benefit of the doubt that he’ll end up in the right place fair quickly even if it means making changes as the series goes on.
2. Who guards LeBron and how does Denver keep him out the paint? I think Jerami Grant will draw the primary assignment to start games and that Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, and even Michael Porter Jr. will all see time on Bron. But a name to watch for is Mason Plumlee in spot duty. Plumlee has size, good quickness for a big man, and is a plus athlete. He also saw some time on Bron when these teams met afer the restart and did okay. Whoever is defending, though, I hope that Bron is not only aggressive driving to the rim, but that he also remains confident shooting his jumper. The best version of Bron is obviously the guy attacking the rim, but the most disheartening version of Bron is the one who’s also burying 25 footers as the defense concedes the one shot they feel comfortable seeing him take. If he can turn possessions the defense sees as a win into a win for the Lakers, Denver’s spirit can be dampened.
3. How much hunting will the Lakers do offensively and will the Nuggets hold up if it’s a lot? For a good defensive team — and Denver is just that — the Nuggets play some defenders who can be taken advantage of. Jokic’s size can be a deterrent when he’s actively moving between you and the rim, but he’s not the most forceful paint protector nor the most active off-ball mover. I expect the Lakers to run P&R’s right at him, particularly when Jokic is defending AD or Dwight and Bron is the ball handler. If Denver switches, that’s a win. If Jokic has to hedge on Bron and try to recover to a lob threat, that’s also a win — particularly if Bron is able to turn the corner or put his defender in the sidecar. And, if AD plays pick-and-pop and Jokic has to hedge and then closeout to AD behind the arc, that too can go well for LA. Porter Jr. can also be taken advtange of defensively, particularly off ball on cuts and when put into screen actions. If Porter Jr. is defending Kuz, wide pin downs and weakside cuts and screens should be the norm to make MPJ stay locked in without making mistakes. I’d also expect the Lakers to try to find ways to get Murray onto LeBron in the post, especially in late game situations.
4. Who’s one star lineups will win out? We’ll see how each team’s rotations shake out, but there’s going to be minutes when one of Murray/Jokic is out while one of Bron/AD is out. If there are stretches each game when Jokic and Bron are out at the same time, those are the minutes the Lakers need to win. Murray’s most effective when he can play in two-man game with Jokic, using the gravity and passing skill of his big man to help generate the space he needs to get good shots off. When Murray is a solo act, he can be more easily slowed, particularly if he’s forced to drive the ball into size. Similarly, the AD only minutes have been shakey over the course of the year, but have been much better during the playoffs. He had a great chemistry with Caruso vs. Portland and the return of Playoff Rondo was a huge boost to those AD-only minutes vs. Houston. If the Lakers can win the minutes when Bron sits this series, it will go a long way towards them advancing to the Finals.
5. How much can the Lakers run and who will control the pace of this series? Denver has played at the 2nd slowest pace these playoffs, averaging only a shade over 94 possessions a game. The Lakers rank 7th in pace and are closer to 100 possessions a game. Denver isn’t a running threat, though they will leakout with Jokic looking for long outlets for easy baskets. The Lakers, on the other hand, look to run a lot and they may just find that Denver is vulnerable there. Per Cleaning the Glass‘ stats, the Nuggets rank 2nd to last in points allowed per transition play and 3rd from the bottom in points per allowed on transition plays that come off live rebounds. If the Lakers can ramp up the overall possessions by getting out in transition a lot, they can really put a squeeze on Denver. Similar to the Portland series, I want to see the Lakers big men really look to run hard and beat Jokic down the floor as often as possible. I also hope to see Bron be aggressive looking to push off rebounds and even for AD to grab and go more in order to speed things up.
6. A key stat to watch will be points in the paint. Per Cleaning the Glass (again), Denver’s defense has allowed the 3rd most shots at the rim by percentage of overall shots defended in these playoffs. The only teams that allowed a higher percentage of shots defended to be taken at the rim are the Pacers and…the Blazers, who played the Lakers in the 1st round.
Meanwhile, the Lakers rank 1st in the playoffs at percentage of shots taken at the rim, dominating both the Blazers and the Rockets with a barrage of shots right at the cup. Considering the trends to this point in the playoffs, this may end up being a big issue for Denver’s defense.
7. How effective will Rondo be? While Rondo was better vs. the Rockets than I ever imagined he’d be, a deeper dive into the specifics of that matchup say we should have seen some of that coming. Rondo’s clearly a smart player, but Houston’s lack of size and their weaknesses defending the point of attack vs. straight-line drives translated to Rondo doing real damage off the dribble. Denver is will always have a big on the floor and will play a more traditional defense. Now, Rondo is smart enough and still in possession of enough skill to be effective vs. them in a playoff environment where he will absorb every Nugget specific detail as part of his preparation. But, even if that’s the case, can he hurt them the way he did Houston? And, if he’s not, will he be as big a part of the rotation?
8. Kuzma vs. MPJ will be an interesting matchup that will be worth our time. Porter Jr. is a fearless shot-taker and a high level scoring threat. Kuz has improved defensively and has settled into an offensive role as a cutter and spot up shooter who has cut down on his gunner tendencies. If Kuz can defend well and find ways to be an off-ball threat on O, it will go a long way in helping LA’s bench units win.
9. Before the Houston series, I said that it was going to be a “LeBron James series”. Well, this matchup vs. Denver has the chance to be an “Anthony Davis series”. AD has the ability to slow Jokic down on one end and attack him mercilessly on the other end. If he does it…watch out.
10. Keep playing well, Alex Caruso. AC is very likely the Lakers best option defnesively vs. Murray and his all around game on both ends of the floor makes him a perfect glue-guy role player in this type of series. He can push the pace offensively in transition, his screening and cutting will be valuable in the halfcourt offensively, and his on ball and help defense will be huge against Murray and Denver’s ball movement attack.
Caruso can be vulnerabe on backcuts and I expect Denver to try to take advantage of him (and the rest of the Lakers off ball defenders) with backcuts when Jokic is working from the elbows. But, if he (and they) can clean that up while maintaining their aggressiveness, I could see him (and them) having good success defensively this series.