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The Denver Nuggets have established themselves as an elite team in the Western Conference
The Denver Nuggets had undeniable success in the 2019-20 regular season and in the 2020 playoffs.
To many, they are the Cinderella story of the playoff. However, Cinderella this time does not make it to the NBA finals. However, the Nuggets further earned the respect of the NBA. Many analysts had the Nuggets either not making it past the first round or struggling to even beat the Utah Jazz. And the Los Angeles Clippers were the favorites to win the 2020 NBA championship.
The Nuggets as a team outplayed the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets players outside of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic averaged 62.4 points per game. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers outside of Lebron James and Anthony Davis only averaged 55.4 points per game for the series. Davis and James put on extraordinary performances and willed the Lakers to victory. It took substantial effort from James and Davis for the Lakers to beat the Nuggets. Below are the notable performances in each game by Davis and James.
Game 1: 37 points by Davis and 12 assists by James.
Game 2: Davis hits the game-winning shot in the 4th quarter. 57 combined points for Davis and James.
Game 3: James has a triple-double. 57 combined points for Davis and James.
Game 4: 60 combined points for Davis and James.
Game 5: 65 combined points by Davis and James. James had a triple-double.
For games 3 through 5, the Lakers only won games that Lebron and Davis scored at least 60 points. In-game 2, Davis hit a game-winning shot to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead. Davis was also the leading scorer of the series and averaged 31.2 points. James led the series in rebounds and assists.
This is reminiscent of when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal played for the Lakers. From the 2000 to 2002 playoffs, Shaq and Kobe played in 18 games in the Western Conference Finals. For their last two championships, the duo averaged 58.5 points per game against the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings in the Western Conference Finals. Scoring in the NBA was much more difficult in the early 2000s and in the 1990s. The NBA was much more of a defensive-minded league. The Kings only averaged 99.6 points per game against the Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Kobe and Shaq were able to effectively provide 60% of the offense the Lakers needed to win.
Today’s NBA is focused on analytics. This has caused teams to shoot more three-point shots and required defenses to be able to better defend the three-point line. The style of play is less focused on having a traditional center. Both the Lakers and Nuggets went deep into their bench and made adjustments throughout the series. The Lakers had 10 players that played in all five games. The Nuggets played 12 different players over the course of the series. If anything, the Nuggets relied too much on their bench and Jokic could have played more minutes.
As fans know, the Nuggets can outscore almost any team. However, they cannot stop another team from scoring. They can’t win by relying on their defense. This becomes problematic when you face a team like the Lakers with two players that you literally cannot stop from scoring. Lebron and Davis would average 59.8 points for games 2 through 5.
The adjustments made by the Lakers were also critical in them winning the series. Primarily, letting Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard play more minutes was a brilliant move. Rondo averaged 8.3 assists for the first 4 games and was allowed to really lead the offense during critical stretches of the game. Rondo’s decision-making ability made sure the Lakers kept many leads over the course of the series. And his timely scoring when the Lakers needed a bucket was critical.
Howard was equally essential for the success of the Lakers. Howard kept Jokic in foul trouble. Jokic had 23 personal fouls in the series and averaged nearly 5 personal fouls per game in the Western Conference Finals. This ultimately helped to reduce his playing time to only 33.4 MPG for the series. With Davis and Howard guarding Jokic, the center only averaged 21.8 points per game in the Western Conference Finals. In the first two rounds, Jokic averaged 25.4 PPG, 37.6 MPG, 10.8 RPG, and 6.0 APG.
The fact that Howard was able to just hone in on Jokic defensively was critical for the success of the Lakers. To put it plainly, without Howard, the Joker has a better series and this would have forced into a 7 game series against the Nuggets. Howard and Rondon were the perfect pieces that the Lakers needed in order to shorten the series.
Howard and Rondo both complement Davis and James well. Playing Howard more minutes allowed Davis to play the power forward position. Dwight primarily took the defending and rebounding responsibility away from Davis. And this put Davis in a position to focus more on scoring. Similarly, Lebron only had to play 35.7 MPG for the first four games. This is mainly because Rondo orchestrated the Laker offense while James was resting and it allowed James to be more effective. Also, in certain situations, he allowed James to focus on being more of a scorer or defender. To put it plainly, without Rondo, the series would have gone 7 games.
Similar to Howard’s defense on Jokic, James’s defense on Murray in games 4 and 5 really made it difficult for the Nuggets to score. Murray in the other playoff series had carried the Nuggets during the fourth quarter and in elimination games. Murray only scored 19 points in game 5. Murray had averaged 34.0 PPG for the first two rounds in game 5 elimination games. Despite their depth, Jokic and Murray are really critical to the offense of the Nuggets. Jokic is a truly unique point-center and Murray can score anywhere on the floor.
Without both Rondo and Howard, the Lakers would have been forced into a 7 game series with the Nuggets.
And a 7 game series would have heavily favored the Nuggets over the Lakers. Rondo made the game-winning pass to Davis in game 2 and had 9 assists for the games. The Nuggets would go on to win game 3. And the momentum would have greatly in favor of the Nuggets with them having a 2-1 lead in the series. In games 4 and 5, Howard starting and defending Jokic reduced his effectiveness late in the series.
James and Davis performing at an elite level was good enough for the Lakers to beat the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. However, it would not have been sufficient enough for the Lakers to beat Nuggets.
If the Nuggets had made it to the NBA finals they would have been facing either the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics. Both teams could match Denver's depth and are much better defensively.
The Nuggets in the 2020 playoffs showed that they can beat elite teams in the playoffs. They have the ability to come back in games. However, the Nuggets need to keep their 2020 playoff success in perspective and build for the long term. In particular, they need to show that they can win a playoff series without it going 7 games. In the 4 playoff series that went 7 games, the Nuggets had home-court advantage in three of those series.
However, for the Nuggets to return to the Western Conference Finals they are going to have to make some changes. The Nuggets surprised many teams in the 2020 playoffs. Murray emerged as one of the premier scorers in the NBA and the 2020 playoffs really showcased his scoring capabilities. Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. also showed that they have promise and are viable scoring options for the Nuggets. Many teams in the future will play the Nuggets differently as a result.
Last season, the Nuggets were the second seed in the Western Conference in the 2018-19 season and essentially decided to “run it back” after their success last season. Granted, they did make it further into the playoffs this season. However, there were many points in the 2020 playoffs where the Nuggets struggled. For the Nuggets to be successful in the future there needs to be the continued development of their players or they bring in veteran players with defensive prowess. This offseason, the Nuggets will free up over 22 million dollars in cap space. They should consider recruiting some veteran players that can help the Nuggets in the 2021 playoffs.
Even going back to the first round of the playoffs, the Jazz had some injuries in the playoffs. Bojan Bogdanović did not play in the first round. Bojan averaged 20.2 points per game for the Jazz in the regular season. Had he played, the Jazz would have likely beaten the Nuggets. In essence, the Nuggets were lucky to make it out of the first round.
The Nuggets for the past three seasons have been the “Bad News Bears” for the playoffs. Many analysts feel that they have beaten better teams in the playoffs. Many of these other teams had more mainstream NBA superstars, were located in larger markets, and had franchises that had more playoff success in the past. Many of these other teams like the Jazz, Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs had made major trades in the offseason so that they could make deep playoff runs. The Nuggets forced the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals against the Portland Trail Blazers to go 7 games. Subsequently, Damian Lillard appeared tired and injured in the conference finals.
There were many analysts who had them losing to the Spurs in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Let’s not forget they were one game away from keeping the Minnesota Timberwolves out of the 2018 playoffs In many respects, it was not in the NBA’s interest for the Nuggets to do so well. The Clippers had hopes of winning a championship until they met the Nuggets in the playoffs. However, the Nuggets keep on winning.
The Nuggets over the past two seasons have established themselves as a formidable competitor in the western conference.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Michael Mannen