You will have to excuse Los Angeles Lakers fans if they come across as a little too excited to be facing the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. After over a year of hearing about the L.A. Clippers’ threat to their reign, a moment or two of schadenfreude is certainly warranted.
But what of the Nuggets? They have now rallied back from 3-1 deficits in two straight series, and just spoiled the NBA’s dream scenario of seeing the two L.A. clubs go head-to-head, which would have been a sure-fire ratings gold mine
In that scenario, the focus would have been on the two on two superstar slugfest pitting LeBron James and Anthony Davis against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. George and Leonard both spurned the Lakers in back-to-back years while the Clippers launched a campaign that presented themselves as the blue-collar anti-Lakers, ready to take over the city.
The Clippers dared to cover the Lakers’ championship banners at Staples Center during their “home” games, a move that some took offense to. And lest we forget, Lakers castoffs Lou Williams and Ivica Zubac feature prominently in the Clippers’ lineups; a meeting with their former team would have presented an opportunity for revenge.
The narratives were plentiful and particularly juicy due to the tension between the two Los Angeles clubs.
No such bad blood exists between the Nuggets and Lakers, at least from the latter’s perspective. At one point, a budding and sometimes testy rivalry was brewing between Nuggets guards Jamal Murray and Lonzo Ball, but that feels like a lifetime ago now that most of the young Lakers were shipped to New Orleans in exchange for Davis.
Instead of narratives, a series between the Lakers and Nuggets will instead have to revolve around actual basketball.
The Clippers were constructed to attack the Lakers’ weak points, with George and Leonard’s size causing problems for a team lacking in wing defenders. The Nuggets don’t offer anywhere near the same level of firepower on the wings, though Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and the rest all bring different skillsets to the table that can be mixed and matched for maximum effectiveness.
What they do have, however, is a one-two punch with Murray and skilled big man Nikola Jokic. Murray has proven to be a big-time shot-maker who thrives in high-pressure situations, while Jokic just may be the best passing big man of all-time, and his ability to score inside and out will create plenty of problems.
The Lakers used small lineups against the Houston Rockets in the last round, but they won’t have to against Denver. Jokic’s size means that JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard can get back on the court. Though, Jokic has had some problems on both ends dealing with Davis’ quickness, which will be a key in the series.
Small ball, or the Lakers’ version of it, anyway, isn’t dead. It’s just no longer a requirement. The Lakers can mix and match both styles against the Nuggets and find success.
While most would view the Nuggets, who finished third in the Western Conference, as an inferior team than the Clippers based on talent, we have found out how important mental make up has been in the NBA bubble; and Denver has proven to be as tough as they come.
Coming back from a 3-1 deficit is a rare occurrence in the NBA, and the Nuggets have now done it twice in a row in the same postseason — a first in league history.
In the semifinals, the Lakers found themselves up 3-1 against the Rockets, who showed up to Game 5 ready to be put out of their misery. Once the Lakers had a decent lead, Houston wilted, content with calling it a season.
Denver has more fight in them than that. They keep coming, regardless of what the odds are. The Nuggets won’t go away, they have to be put away, and then put away again, just to be certain.
The Lakers can, for a moment, enjoy the Clippers’ exit. Then, it’s time to get to work, because we’ve seen how dangerous it is to overlook the Nuggets.
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