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The Los Angeles Lakers should not understimate the Denver Nuggets. The Los Angeles Clippers had a major victory over the Nuggets in game 1 of the Western Confe
The Denver Nuggets are an amazing team and have shown enough toughness in the playoffs to beat any team.
First with the Nuggets. The Nuggets have reason to celebrate after beating the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Semifinals. They have not been to the Western Conference finals in 11 seasons and they just beat arguably the best team in the NBA. The Clippers disappointed Laker fans as well by not making it to the Western Conference Finals.
Will the Nuggets be a tougher opponent for the Los Angeles Lakers than the Los Angeles Clippers. Yes. What separates the Nuggets is the unique talent of Nikola Jokic coupled with the scoring abilities of Jamal Murray. This is one of the best center-guard combinations in the NBA since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Moreover, Murray and Jokic have a deeper supporting cast than Shaq and Kobe had when they won their championship.
Nikola is the best passing NBA center I have ever seen play basketball. Second, would have to be Ducan of the San Antonio Spurs. However, Ducan never really functioned as a point guard for the Spurs. Nikola can be the best player for the Nuggets without being their leading scorer. That aside, they are one of the deepest teams in the NBA.
What can make the Nuggets a harder opponent than the Clippers is that the Lakers may not take the Nuggets as seriously. However, the veteran leadership on the Lakers will not likely be so careless. The Lakers are just too smart of a basketball team to make the mistakes that other opponents have made against the Nuggets. The Lakers have Anthony Davis, Javale McGee, and Dwight Howard to help guard Jokic. They have the size and skill to guard Jokic. Many would agree that the Lakers have the best frontcourt in the NBA. The Clippers frontcourt could not match-up well with Jokic.
However, the Nuggets like the Portland Trail Blazers perform well during the regular season and they are good enough to beat any team in the NBA playoffs. However, many people doubt whether or not they can make deep playoff runs. This makes them difficult for playoff opponents that underestimate them. Arguably, this is also what happened to the Houston Rockets in the first round when it took them 7 games to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Most of their opponents don’t play the Nuggets like they have the second or third-best record in the Western Conference. Their depth gives the ability to make a lot of offensive adjustments throughout the playoffs. Jokic is the most unique center in the NBA and Murray is one of the most volatile scores in the NBA. However, their limitation has been their defense.
How did the Nuggets get here? Player development. The key to the Denver's success over the past three seasons has been the development of their young talented players and sticking with their roster. The Nuggets understand that it takes years to build a championship team. Even teams with superstars require a lot of depth in order to go far in the playoffs. In many cases, all-time great players had great supporting casts to enable them to win championships. The Nuggets have surrounded and developed enough talent around Murray and Jokic for them to make a deep playoff run.
The Nuggets also understand the importance of performing well in the regular season. 8 out of the last 10 conference finals have been won by the team with home court. Five of the last six winners of the Western Conference Finals had the best record in the Western Conference during the regular season. Lebron James only playing 55 games for the 2018-19 seasons was enough for the Lakers not to make the playoffs. Success during the regular season to some degree predicts success in the playoffs.
The Nuggets have shown how small market teams can be competitive in the NBA. However, Denver's weakness remains that the team has trouble defending elite scores outside of the center position. James and Davis are going to play well in the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets will want to make the Lakers shoot a lot of three-point shots. However, the Lakers have many players that are capable of hitting three-point shots.
The Lakers have shown real dominance in the 2020 playoffs and against tougher opponents than the Nuggets. Against the Rockets the Lakers dominated by scoring in the paint and controlling the glass. Throughout the series, the Rockets were unable to stop James and Davis from scoring. In fairness to the Rockets, Portland had no answer for Davis or James.
The remaining players on the Laker roster have stepped up at various points in the series, including Rajon Rondo, and this has been enough offense for the Lakers to beat Portland and Rockets. The Nuggets are a good offensive team, however, Houston is an even more exceptional offensive team. The Lakers could not effectively manage Harden. However, they effectively defended Russell Westbrook and kept the Rockets from being effective from the three-point line.
Unlike the Nuggets, Houston's roster was built to play really one style of basketball. This style involves Harden playing one-on-one against defenders and having shooters spread the floor. This has enabled them to have had great success over the past three seasons by mainly relying on their ability to shoot effectively from three-point range. However, this leaves them vulnerable when they are not making three-pointers or when an opponent really exploits their weakness defensively. Their “small ball” lineup has not been able to adequately manage James or Davis.
The Nuggets are a deeper team than the Rockets and can adjust their offensive strategy more evenly with the Lakers. They are great at moving without the ball. The Nuggets will make adjustments through the series and try to exploit matchups. This could be a long series for the Lakers. However, the biggest issue for the Nuggets is James and Davis. The duo is the first Laker team members to make an all NBA-First team in the same season since Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Lebron always takes it to another level in the playoffs and is capable of getting a 30-point triple-double every night. And Davis’s dominance in the playoffs has been demonstrated even when he played for the Pelicans. In 2015 playoffs Davis averaged 31.5 points per game against the Warriors. Even against the 2018 Warriors, Davis averaged 27.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game and was the leading scorer in that series.
While the Lakers do not have a consistent third offensive option, they have a variety of players that fill that role on a given night. They have a complete roster and always find a way to win when the pressure is on them. This is exactly opposite for how the Clippers handle the Nuggets.
Likely, both teams will need to make adjustments to win the series. However, the Lakers have many veteran players that have made deep playoff runs in their NBA careers. This definitely gives them the experience needed to close out this series.
The Lakers should be able to handle the pressure of beating the Nuggets. Their veterans have been able to effectively manage the pressure of being a “Laker” and having championship expectations throughout the playoffs and regular season. It appears this was a central issue for the newly constructed Clipper roster.
In fairness to the Clippers, the Lakers their first season struggled with expectations. And there were major roster changes that followed. Moreover, Lebron when he played for the Miami Heat his first season did not win a title. However, he at least made it to the NBA finals and did not lose in the second round of the playoffs. When Kawhi took his talents to Los Angeles he forgot the level of competition in the Western Conference can be during playoff time.
The Nuggets still have a chance at winning the series if Murray and Jokic play extremely well. Murray is a very volatile scorer in the playoffs. The duo’s performances late in the playoff series has become iconic and it will be needed against the Lakers.
However, the Lakers will also be a much harder opponent for the Nuggets than the Clippers. The Lakers have taken the 2020 playoffs very seriously and they are not going to blow a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets. The Nuggets have only closed out the playoff series in game 7. This series will not go 7 games and the Nuggets will need a different strategy for beating the Lakers.
Anything can happen in a game 7 and the Lakers must close this series out before game 7. If the Nuggets can beat the Clippers, they can beat any NBA team. However, the Lakers have more team chemistry than the Clippers and veteran players that know how to close out a series.