The Western Conference Finals are here and the Los Angeles Lakers will be taking on the
L.A. Clippers Denver Nuggets.
While the Lakers will enter the series as the favorites, the Nuggets have earned respect around the league after knocking out the Clippers and battling back from 3-1 series deficits in their last two rounds.
They have proven that they aren’t a team to be taken lightly and the Lakers will have to be at their best if they want to avoid losing game 1 in three straight series.
Here are three areas the Lakers will need to focus on in order to pick up a win in Game 1.
The Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokic pick and roll:
The deadliest weapon in the Nuggets’ arsenal is the high pick and roll that they run featuring stars Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
Lots of NBA teams use the pick and roll as their go-to offensive action, but Murray’s high-level shooting and Jokic’s passing make their version of it particularly difficult to stop.
If the big switches off of Jokic and drops into the paint, Murray’s jumper is lethal. Push up too high and the big risks getting blown by for a layup.
Jokic’s timing is perfect, so the slightest passing window for Murray can result in an easy bucket for The Joker. Double team the ball handler, as the Lakers did against James Harden, and you run the risk of Jokic getting the ball around the free-throw line with a 4-on-3 advantage, which is trouble.
The Nuggets are currently shooting the second-highest 3-point percentage in the playoffs, and the highest of any of the four teams still standing.
The high pick and roll essentially forces teams to pick their poison, and every option appears deadly. Just for fun, Denver even mixes things up now and then by getting Jokic the ball around the three-point line, where he then hands off to a cutting Murray.
Oh, and let’s not forget that Jokic is also excellent in a pick-and-pop, and is currently hitting 44% from deep in the playoffs.
What are the Lakers to do? Fortunately, they have had experience dealing with scoring guards in the last two series against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Harden, and Russell Westbrook. While the Murray/Jokic pick and roll has some different particulars, the bottom line is that the Lakers, as a unit, have had a crash course on scrambling to shooters after reacting to a team’s primary action.
Head coach Frank Vogel has a defense-first mentality, so expect to see the Lakers employ a number of different strategies to keep the Nuggets guessing. As with most stars, there is no shutting down Jokic or Murray.
Instead, the Lakers will focus on doing what they can to make them less efficient. Expect some hard double-teams early, as the Lakers used against Harden, but the Nuggets’ passing may force Los Angeles to try other approaches as well.
Attack the paint:
As good as Jokic is, he isn’t exactly light on his feet. He’s dropped considerable weight since the season began, but will still be at a speed disadvantage, especially when matched up with Anthony Davis.
Making him defend the pick and roll and other screen actions, particularly on the perimeter, can leave the paint open for easy scores.
Veteran Paul Millsap and bouncy wing Jerami Grant are both capable of offering moderate resistance at the rim, but the Nuggets rank 13th out of the 16 playoff teams in points surrendered in the paint for a reason.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are the highest-scoring team in that area. Denver presents a lot of challenges, but the one place the Lakers have to dominate is scoring in the paint.
While the Nuggets may have some challenges protecting the rim, they can do a lot of damage on the offensive glass. They rank fourth in offensive boards among playoff teams, which is made even more impressive by the fact that they are shooting a blistering (and hopefully, unsustainable) 40% from three.
In other words, the Nuggets don’t miss a lot, but when they do, they create second-chance opportunities by hitting the offensive boards.
Jokic’s big body and positioning make him the main culprit, but Mason Plumlee, Millsap and rookie Michael Porter Jr. also get in on the act.
It’s going to be important for the Lakers to put a body on the Nuggets and secure the rebound because giving Denver multiple looks can be a recipe for disaster.
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