The Western Conference Finals begins today. The wait is finally over. And while the opponent isn’t who nearly everyone thought it would be, they’re a worthy opponent all the same. The Lakers face off vs. a really good Nuggets team that offers all the qualities you’d expect from a group contending for a title. They have a top flight superstar, another dynamic scorer on the perimeter, a good defense, is resilient, plays hard, and are very well coached.
This team deserves respect and, as we’ve been saying, the Lakers would be wise to understand that before the games start rather than have to realize it afterwards when it can be too late.
With that, if you’re looking for some of the larger themes and questions about this series, you can find my thoughts in my bigger preview where I dive deeper into trends and matchups and what I’ll be watching for as the series unfolds. This, though, is about winning game 1.
The Lakers haven’t been good at that these playoffs, dropping both opening games vs. the Blazers and the Rockets. I know LeBron has called game 1’s “feeling out” games, but it’d be nice to get a leg up in the series from the jump, rather than rallying and turning the tide.
In order to do that, there’s a few things I think will matter for this game (and, depending how things go, for the rest of the series too). In no particular order…
- How much will LeBron post up? One point of analysis you’ve surely seen is how much a threat LeBron is off the dribble. In isolation, in P&R, in transition. My guess is that the Nuggets will try to take that away by clogging the paint and trying to turn him into a jumpshooter when he’s handling the ball higher out on the floor. Where that strategy will be tested more, though, is when LeBron goes to the post where instead of starting 25+ feet from the basket, he’s catching the ball or starting a backdown from 15-18 feet. The geometry of the floor changes at that point and Denver’s response will be different. So, will Bron post up a lot or not? If he does, it could mean more lobs (look for Dwight/JaVale coming from the weakside dunker’s spot) and more skip and kickout passes for open 3’s.
- Speaking of 3’s, the Lakers will need to make some. On the WCF preview pod from Zach Lowe, Stan Van Gundy said over and over again that a defense “can’t take everything away” and that if he were defending these Lakers he’d make guys like Danny Green, KCP, Kuzma, Morris, Caruso, and Rondo make outside shots to beat you. Well, if Denver goes in that direction, those guys need to make the defense pay. Believe me, there’s nothing more frustrating to a defense than when you execute your gameplan the way you want and the other team just makes those shots anyway. Think of how you felt every time Russ made a 3 the Lakers were letting him take. So, if Denver is going to load up on Bron and AD, the shooters need to be ready to let it fly. And it’d be nice if they went in.
- On that note, which team’s role players show up bigger? Denver is not going to win this series without at least a few big role player games — or, at least some critical big plays at crucial times. We saw this vs. the Clippers when Millsap’s late series scoring threw a monkeywrench into the Clippers defensive approach. On the Lakers side, big games from Rondo, Morris, and Caruso were critical in eliminating Houston in 5 games. The Lakers need to slow those other guys. Now, a lot of that will depend on how much help they give on Jokic and how capably LA’s defense can mark him in one-on-one situations. Doubling him allows him to pick you apart with the pass and it can lead to the types of open shots role players feast on. That said, I’ll feel a lot better this game if two or more of the Lakers role players can have good (not great, but good) games.
- One more LeBron point: expect Denver to go under on screens with him in order to avoid allowing him to get downhill. Bron needs to shoot his jumper with confidence, but also not settle too often. Screen and re-screen to get a coverage you want. Run more pick and pop with AD or when guards screen for him. Mix up the action a bit more in order to into places on the floor that you want to be. I trust Bron to read this sort of stuff correctly, but it’s something to watch for this game.
- I’d love a big game from AD offensively and I think how big it can be will depend on if his jumper is falling or not. AD has been a mid-range assassin these playoffs and those shots will be there for him vs. the drop coverage Denver is sure to run vs. him in the P&R. He can get very similar shots to the ones he got vs. Portland this series. If he hits them at the same rate, Denver is going to have a big problem on their hands.
- Don’t get baited into fouls. Jokic, and I say this with respect, will bait you into fouls. He’ll hook your arm, he’ll throw his head back on contact. It’s important to keep him off the line and to stay out of the penalty. When the Nuggets were coming back in the 2nd half of games 5, 6, and 7 they did a lot of damage at the FT line with the clock stopped. They’re too good an offense to give them free points. Play aggressive, but don’t get caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Guys who need to be reminded of this: Dwight, Danny Green, and Caruso.
- Run, run, run. Denver’s best players have played huge minutes these playoffs. Even with an extra day of rest, the goal should be to make them play the full 94 feet and do so at a tempo not to their liking. As I said in my series preview, the Nuggets have been one of the slower paced teams in the league. They’re limiting possessions by playing slower. If the Lakers can speed them up, especially when on offense, it will serve them well. Not only this game, but it will pay dividends later in the series.
- I’ll stress this one last time: defensive discipline is not optional vs. this team. They run a lot of off ball action via cuts and screens. They are very comfortable going deeper into a possession and exploring more of the options in their playbook to get you thinking and defending for longer than you want. Then, when you make a mistake, they capitalize. The Lakers will need a mental endurance defensively tonight; they’ll need to be sharp late into the shot clock where the level of engagement at 5 seconds will need to be the same as it was with 18 seconds.
Look, I’m not going to lie. Denver concerns me more for the intangible reasons than the tangible ones. They have great talent to be sure, but they’re mentally tough, resilient, and confident. The Lakers have broken their other opponents these playoffs. Doing that vs. the Nuggets will be harder, considering their path to this point. Play smart, play hard, and play with purpose on both sides of the ball.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TNT.