Three keys to Lakers vs. Nuggets in 2020 Western Conference Finals

Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday Sept. 16 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — He was all smiles when he was greeted at the locker room by coaches and staff like a conquering hero, his 40 points helping topple one of the West’s most formidable teams.

But by the time Jamal Murray entered the back gym of AdventHealth Arena for his post game press conference, he had adopted a stone-faced demeanor. He dressed relaxed in a University of Kentucky shirt and sipped out of a white coffee cup, but he also had burnished the hefty chip on his shoulder.

The Nuggets were not expected to beat the Clippers. Part of this was 14 months of speculation that a superstar pairing with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George would blow away all comers. Part of this was fueled by Denver itself, which got down 1-3 in the series before doing what no team has done in history and coming back from that margin twice in one postseason.

“Everybody counts us out,” Murray said with an icy edge. “It’s just fun to silence everybody. We love it.”

The Denver Nuggets are the latest in a line of Davids the Lakers have to contend with, but unlike the Trail Blazers and Rockets, the Nuggets have already dismissed a Goliath. While the shaky start to the NBA bubble and the unlikely comebacks give the Nuggets an underdog aura, it’s worth remembering that Denver was 46-27 and the No. 5 offense in the NBA (112.6 offensive rating) — a team that has always needed to be taken seriously.

And the Lakers are taking them seriously. Frank Vogel said Monday that the Lakers had gotten more scouting work done on the Clippers when they went up 3-1, but had started evening out that workload. By halftime of Game 7 when the Clippers led by just two points, I had a conversation with a Lakers staffer that left me believing that the team was preparing to face Denver — which had the slow, unstoppable momentum of a glacier upending the Clippers’ maiden voyage with Leonard and George.

Some early thoughts on the match-up and what will matter:

1) Can the Lakers play Jokic big?

In a word: Probably. After a second-round series in which the Lakers proved themselves a better small-ball team than the Rockets, they’ll be able to start JaVale McGee and work in Dwight Howard who had to sit out. Between Jokic standing at 7 feet and Mason Plumlee as the reserve center, there’s minutes to be found for bigs who can bang inside.

But the X-factor is how effective Jokic has been inside and out. In the playoffs, he’s shooting 44 percent from 3-point range, truly eye-popping accuracy. McGee and Howard will be pulled away from the rim often to create space for cutters who Jokic can also target with the pass. If they stay back, they’ll have to be picked apart by his shooting. Those are not great options.

In many of the Lakers’ close games with Denver this year, they’ve leaned on Anthony Davis in late minutes to take on Jokic. In February, he hit two critical 3-pointers in overtime to help the Lakers pull ahead, and in both games in Denver, Davis has played convincing closing defense on Jokic. According to NBA matchup data (which is often shaky), Jokic is just 3 for 10 in possessions when guarded by Davis, and the Nuggets have just scored 33 points in some 36 possessions (which is not good).

But putting Davis on Jokic means surrendering size and physicality elsewhere on the court in match-ups with Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant. Jokic averages just 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in Lakers matchups this year, which are all below his season averages, but it’s reasonable for the Lakers to be concerned he’s found another gear in the postseason.

2) Who wins in transition?

If a weakness has been exposed for the Lakers, it’s been turnovers. The Lakers have averaged a 16.1 turnover percentage which is one of the worst in the playoffs, and LeBron James has 4.8 per game, which is the second-most in the playoffs. On one hand, Denver has been one of the least effective teams at generating turnovers. On the other, it only takes watching a few possessions of their style to realize how effective they can be in transition regardless of whether or not it’s off a steal. If anyone can throw a full-court dime as well as James, it’s Jokic. And with gallopers like Grant, Plumlee or Gary Harris, the Nuggets can strike quickly even if their best player is famous for not being able to run fast. 

The Lakers have quietly given up a lot of points off turnovers, 17.5 ppg on average in the playoffs which is second to just the Blazers and the Thunder. In their Game 1 loss to the Rockets, they gave up 27 points off of turnovers. They’ve been better in the fastbreak, only allowing 8.9 points off of the fastbreak which is one of the best marks of playoff teams. But their second round series was geared toward stopping the Rockets’ run-and-gun game, so the smaller lineups were more effective at getting back. It remains to be seen if the big lineup can do the same.

The Lakers also have the benefit of being one of the best fast-break teams in the league, thanks to James and his own weapons. They average 15.5 fastbreak points per game, and their quick-strike ability has been foundational all year. Particularly this postseason, James has bullied his way to the rim on fast breaks, unwilling to settle for midrange jumpers. It will be fascinating how Mike Malone, who is a one-time assistant coach on a James team, directs his team to get back and build a wall against him. Harris has been an extremely effective on-ball defender in spurts, and he’ll probably be the one thrown onto James. Hustle will have a very measurable impact in this series.

3) Playing free and easy

Now for an intangible: No one has looked looser than the Nuggets this postseason, especially in a pair of 3-1 comebacks. They demolished the Clippers in the second half of Game 7, 50-33. As Leonard and George failed to score a basket and the entire Clippers bench seemed to draw grim expressions and downtrodden slumps in their shoulders, the Nuggets looked like they were having fun, which might seem easily dismissed, but in the bubble, it can’t be.

The bubble can be extremely staid and cold as a setting, and it’s clear that homecourt advantage plays almost no role at all in the playoffs. Momentum from game to game is unpredictable, and in Denver’s case, no travel probably served them well. Murray particularly is a callous flamethrower when he’s hot, and even though he hasn’t shot particularly well from three when facing the Lakers, it’s impossible to count out a man who has already scored 50 points twice this postseason.

A Jokic quote after Game 6 left a distinct impression on me because watching Denver’s ball movement, shot-making and clear, confident play down the stretch in games they trailed big.

“It’s gonna sound weird, or funny, or whatever, but we don’t care,” he said. “We’re just go there and have fun. Coach said before the meeting, ‘Don’t forget to have fun.’ … When we play like that, confidence is really high.”

The Lakers have played with a lot of confidence in moments, but have also seemed tight, especially in Game 1s. Denver is at its mile-high peak of spirit and freedom, and Malone is likely to highlight how his team has already surpassed expectations and has nothing to lose. With their biggest Western Conference opponent on paper out of the way, the Lakers are now clear title favorites with James at the head of the pack of remaining players in the bubble, and arguably Davis at No. 2. And as the Clippers showed, sometimes the weight of expectations can be crushing.

In series like these, no one weeps when Goliath tumbles.

– Kyle Goon

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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