Nobody believed the Denver Nuggets could come back from the dead against the Utah Jazz. And certainly very few BetOnline customers felt they could vanquish the Los Angeles Clippers after going down three games to one. Yet that’s exactly what they did, and here they are, with an opportunity to take their unlikely story to a whole other level.
But they will have to get by the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has demonstrated the ability to operate on the inside against them this season. As they say, however, the playoffs are a whole new ballgame. And Game 1 of the Western Conference finals gets underway at 9 PM ET on Friday
Denver has never made it to the NBA Finals. But the Nuggets have become the only team to come back from 3-1 deficits twice in the same playoff season. So they’ve already made some history.
This Denver team was put together as an ensemble, more or less. But two stars have really emerged. Nikola Jokic may just be the most multi-talented center in the league. And he is coming off a triple-double in Game 7 of the series against the Los Angeles Clippers, in which he pulled down a whopping 22 rebounds. This is a guy who can play inside or outside, make passes to set up baskets (he led the team in assists) and handle the ball. The offense runs off him. And of course, if anybody wanted to know how prolific a scorer Jamal Murray can be, he scored 142 points over a three-game period against Utah.
While a lot of teams are going “small,” the Nuggets went bigger, bringing the big men back into things. The Lakers had an opponent in the last round of play who specialized in “small ball,” and that resulted in a 4-1 series victory over the Houston Rockets. But they are uniquely constructed to contend with foes who have size. And that’s the kind of thing that will likely be on display more prominently in this conference final.
This is the way the NBA playoff odds look for Game 1:
Los Angeles Lakers -7
Denver Nuggets +7
Over 211 points -110
Under 211 points -110
And by the way, these are BetOnline’s odds for the entire series:
Los Angeles Lakers -575
Denver Nuggets +455
The Lakers’ strength comes not only with the all-around talents of LeBron James, but also with their effective use of size. They have a certain amount of versatility with it. Anthony Davis is enough of a shot-blocker and intimidating force to play center (2.4 blocks per game), and so L.A. can field a lineup that has him flanked by James and somebody like Markieff Morris, while Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope play in the backcourt.
But head coach Frank Vogel has pledged to make more use of JeVale McGee and Dwight Howard in this series. They combined to play just 46 minutes in the entire Houston series. They weren’t really needed, because the Lakers didn’t have to match up with size in the front court. Obviously Denver presents a different look to them.
The Nuggets are not one of the NBA’s better defensive teams, and the Lakers managed success against them when playing in close during the regular season, averaging 57 points in the paint.
Maybe the trump card for the Lakers here is the playoff experience that Green and Rajon Rondo bring to the table. Rondo, who was sidelined with a thumb injury at the beginning of the bubble, came off the bench to hand out seven assists per game against Houston, shooting 51% from the field in the process. Green, who has been on championship teams in San Antonio and Toronto, is one of those “3 and D” guys who is a vital component.
While I’m certain the Lakers can create some defensive matchups that might slow down what Denver wants to do, I’m not sure the Nuggets will deal effectively with what a balanced Laker roster, which includes Kyle Kuzma coming off the bench, can produce offensively. And when L.A. doesn’t have to depend on perimeter shooting, they’re in better shape. We’re going to lay the points in Game 1.
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