The Los Angeles Lakers are entering the final stages of their championship pursuit, facing the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.
The matchup certainly is an unexpected one as the L.A. Clippers were heavily favored to face the Lakers in an epic Battle of Los Angeles for a spot in the NBA Finals. But overestimating the relentless Nuggets would be an unforgettable mistake.
They have now come back from a 3-1 deficit twice this postseason on the back of Jamal Murray’s and Nikola Jokic’s brilliance. And Lakers head coach Frank Vogel is well-aware of the latter’s talent.
“Joker is one of the most unique players in the world and one of the most unique players to ever play the center position in this league,” Vogel said ahead of Game 1. “What he’s able to do, he basically can hurt you in all ways.”
The Jokic factor has been the main talking point of the series. What do the Lakers do to stop the crafty center after successfully transitioning to small-ball against the Houston Rockets?
Quick and effective rotations on defense will be just as crucial against Denver with Jokic posing a threat from deep as well as with his vision, often kicking the ball back to create open looks for his perimeter shooters.
And L.A.’s version of small-ball actually allows the team to preserve its size, as Vogel, Anthony Davis, and LeBron James pointed out. In the end, the lineup with Markieff Morris starting in the place of JaVale McGee worked wonders in the last two games of the series with the Rockets, reducing Houston to just 98 points per game on average.
And you do not want to change a well-functioning rotation. But the Lakers need to establish themselves as a rim-protecting force or Jokic will hurt them badly. He averaged 13.4 rebounds over the seven games against the Clippers, including a staggering 22 boards in Game 7 to hammer the final nail in their coffin.
Hence, McGee and Dwight Howard will very likely be back in their standard roles against Denver, as Vogel hinted.
Dion Waiters was listed as doubtful for Game 1 and Rajon Rondo was questionable because of back spasms. Vogel said Rondo is available and while the team does not have a minutes limit but would be “smart” with their handling of the veteran point guard.
With or without Rondo, the Lakers figured to focus on the defensive end, which has been has been touted as their “third star” and the crucial offense initiator.
But also to halt Denver’s sharpshooters; the Nuggets have been converting 39.1% of their 3-point attempts, the second-best percentage in the playoffs.
However, the Lakers are approaching the matchup with confidence, and understandably so. They hold the best net rating of the postseason proving how well-balanced a roster they own and that the players are peaking at exactly the right time.
Meanwhile, Davis and James thrive alongside one another, which their All-NBA First Team selection proves. In addition, the three-time NBA champion made it absolutely clear he is on a mission to bring glory days back to Los Angeles this season.
Denver might have surprised the Clippers, but James will surely be determined to make a statement and show them as early as in Game 1 this year’s title belongs to L.A. nevertheless.
Nuggets (0-0) vs. Lakers (0-0)
6:00 p.m. PT, Sep. 18, 2020
ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Florida
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers Starting Lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Danny Green
PF: Anthony Davis
C: JaVale McGee
Key Reserves: Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Dwight Howard
Projected Nuggets Starting Lineup:
PG: Jamal Murray
SG: Garry Harris
SF: Jerami Grant
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Nikola Jokic
Key Reserves: Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris
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