Ah, yes, it’s the Western Conference Finals rematch between the Nuggets and Lakers that nobody saw coming — except Kendrick Perkins, of course.
This time, though, Denver should be the favorites, and for good reason: they cruised to the one-seed in the regular season and have leveled up during the playoffs with both a dominant offense and defense.
With that said, L.A. cannot be counted out. This is a legitimate contender that has Anthony Davis playing the best defense of his life, and he might be the only player league-wide with a chance of slowing down Jokic. Oh, they also have some other guy named LeBron James too.
So, will the Lakers continue to prove their doubters wrong, or is Denver destined to go all the way?
Let’s find out.
Takeaways from the first two rounds
After two rounds, the Nuggets’ numbers across the board are sparkling: they own the best net rating among all 16 playoff teams (+10.3) and the highest offensive rating (121.1), but the scariest part is that they’ve managed to have the 4th best defensive rating too at 110.8 (2nd among the remaining teams).
This isn’t due to shooting luck, either. In fact, Denver’s opponents’ eFG% of 53.3% is actually higher than the 52.6% they were expected to shoot when accounting for shot location. However, those numbers don’t necessarily indicate that the Nuggets have been unlucky since they just played a Phoenix team who lives in the mid-range and employs checks note Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. Considering that, Denver’s defense is likely right where it belongs and luck probably hasn’t played a huge factor either way.
Even so, there’s no denying that the Nuggets’ defense has exceeded expectations and is playing a key role in their dominance. In the Suns series, Denver knew that they only really needed to focus on KD and Booker and made the bold decision of dropping on pull-up mid-rangers from CP3. Even though the Point God made some of those open shots, he was largely ineffective in the series and scored just 19 points on 9-21 shooting in 57 total minutes.
Sagging off CP and Phoenix’s other role players allowed the Nuggets to gap up against KD and Booker before sending double teams when they were about to make a play, making their lives much harder than usual.
The Nuggets are just all over KD, physical man-to-man defense + heavy gap help pic.twitter.com/o0bSQ2rHvQ— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) May 12, 2023
Yes, the Suns’ two stars still put up great numbers, but a lot of that was due to hot shooting rather than any fault of Denver’s defense. The Nuggets did a masterful job of defending Phoenix’s pick and roll by having Jokic play at the level of the screen to prevent open pull-ups before switching out of the mismatch on the fly. They would also pre-switch off-ball to regain the upper hand, which is all laid out in the video below.
The Nuggets defense has been amazing vs. the Suns so far this series— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) May 5, 2023
New video breaking down how Denver has used switches and helped off non-shooters to contain Phoenix
For more videos like this watch Beyond The Arc every Tuesday and Thursday on @FanDuelTV. pic.twitter.com/QQwJRGDLSV
The one concern with Denver’s defense, though, is that their solid rim protection numbers might not last. So far, opposing teams are making 65.7% of their shots within 4 feet of the rim, which is roughly average and miles better than the 70.6% mark that they conceded in the regular season (29th overall). A lot of that is due to the Nuggets playing a Minnesota team whose two bigs were either more interested in playing on the perimeter (KAT) or has a hard time simply catching passes (Gobert).
In the Phoenix series, they were also matched up against DeAndre Ayton, whose self-given “DominAyton” nickname is a bigger lie than LeBron claiming that he predicted Kobe’s 81-point game.
Monty Williams benched Deandre Ayton after he failed to finish a layup over Jamal Murray. pic.twitter.com/233OXbl7XF— Khiz (@KhizHoop) May 6, 2023
With that in mind, Denver’s defense might not be as good as the numbers indicate thus far considering that they haven’t played a team or player who can really punish their biggest weakness (rim protection), and neither Phoenix nor Minnesota did a great job of attacking Jokic either. However, there’s no doubt that the Nuggets are giving much better effort and proving that they’re capable of being above average defensively, which is more than enough for a championship run given their historic offense.
What’s the best counter to a historically great offense? Well, an equally great defense of course, which is exactly what the Lakers are.
Through two rounds, L.A. has a stifling 106.9 defensive rating which is a whopping 1.4 points better than the next-best team that made the playoffs (New York) and nearly 4.0 points clear of the second-best defensive team remaining in the Nuggets. The Lakers are letting opponents shoot just 59.3% within 4 feet of the basket, which would’ve been by far the lowest mark in the regular season.
The craziest part is that their dominant rim protection actually seems somewhat sustainable. Consider this: so far in these playoffs, opponents are shooting a ridiculously low 45.1% within 6 feet of the rim with AD as the primary defender, which is 19.2% worse than their usual FG%. That 45.1% mark is also 4.3% better than the next-best player, who just so happens to be... LeBron James.
The Lakers have done a great job of funneling opponents purposefully toward AD, who just lurks in the paint waiting to gobble up shots like Chuck does with Krispy Kremes.
AD block on Steph— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 7, 2023
LeBron finds D'Lo for the triple pic.twitter.com/9k4P1KC6Hy
As shown in the clip above, the Lakers’ defense often leads to points in transition, which is especially important for a team that struggles to generate great looks in half-court settings. In the playoffs, L.A. is 3rd in the frequency of plays that come in transition at 17.2%, and their offensive rating of 124.1 is roughly average.
In the half-court, though, the Lakers are scoring an anemic 93.4 points per 100 possessions (12th among playoff teams) but they’ve done a solid job of limiting the number of those plays to just 78.0%, which is the 5th lowest in the postseason. All of those numbers are roughly in line with L.A.’s regular season stats too, so nothing is unsustainable.
What is slightly concerning, though, is the number of threes that the Lakers concede. L.A. is dead last in the playoffs in the frequency of opponents' shots from deep at 41.4%, but they haven’t been punished since those attempts have only gone in at a 34.7% clip. Opponent 3-point shooting historically has had very little correlation with a team’s defense, so if the Nuggets get hot from deep, then L.A. could be in some trouble.
With that said, I’m willing to give the Lakers some benefit of the doubt. Their perimeter defense definitely passes the eye test, as Vanderbilt, Reaves, and Schröder are all decent to very good defenders and they do a good job of sticking to their matchups and contesting shots. Denver isn’t overly reliant on long-range shots, either, so L.A. shouldn’t be too concerned about their opponent 3-point luck regressing, especially since the main battleground of this series will be fought much closer to the basket.
Key matchup: Davis vs Jokic
Jokic is the most unstoppable offensive force in the league, but if basketball scientists were to construct an ideal player to counter him, he would look eerily similar to AD.
As mentioned before, L.A.’s rim protection is elite, but Denver doesn’t actually do most of their damage around that area as they’re average in both their number of attempts around the basket and their conversion rate. Jokic, in particular, has only had 25% of his shots in the playoffs come within 4 feet of the basket (25th percentile), which is even lower than the 44% (41st percentile) he attempted in the regular season. However, over half (51%, 97th percentile) of his shots have come between 4-14 feet of the rim in the playoffs, and he’s making them at a 56% clip (78th percentile).
The good news for Lakers fans is that AD has been elite at guarding basically every area of the court, including Jokic’s sweet spot. In addition to his rim protection, The Brow has also made opponents shoot the lowest percentage (40.6%) on all two-pointers among playoff players who guard at least 3 such attempts per game, which is a gargantuan 15.3% points lower than their usual FG%.
The difference with Jokic, though, is that his size will present some issues for AD. Joker probably has a good 10-20 pounds on The Brow and is capable of backing anyone down to his sweet spot in the post before throwing up a wild-looking shot that somehow always goes in. At the same time, AD’s athleticism will give Jokic trouble since he can get sky-high to block shots, and even if Jokic fakes him out with one of his patented moves, AD can still warp his body like a Transformer to stuff opponents.
Anthony Davis rejects Ja Morant for his 4TH BLOCK of the half pic.twitter.com/ZuGLVBqGxG— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 1, 2023
If the opportunity presents itself, the Lakers will live with Jokic isos against AD since it’ll mean that Denver won’t be generating its usual offense through cuts and movement, and the end result would be Jokic putting up big numbers but Denver decreasing its odds of winning.
One wrinkle that the Lakers could try would be putting AD on Gordon and LeBron on Jokic. This would protect Denver from pulling The Brow out onto the perimeter in pick and rolls while also allowing him to be more of a roamer by daring Gordon to shoot. Having LeBron on Jokic wouldn’t be ideal for the Lakers, but AD could provide consistent help as a roaming presence.
Either way, expect many lineup shenanigans from both sides, which leads us to the biggest question heading into the series.
Biggest question: Will L.A. start Vanderbilt or their three guards?
Jarred Vanderbilt’s impact will loom large in this series on both ends of the court. If Darvin Ham chooses to start and play him big minutes, it would give Denver more options to defend AD.
One of the defensive adjustments that was made by Michael Malone against Phoenix was having Jokic guard the Suns’ least effective offensive player, which was often Josh Okogie. This protected Jokic from constantly being hunted in the pick-and-roll while simultaneously letting him roam and offer more rim protection, and if Vanderbilt starts, expect the Joker to be matched up with him plenty too.
In this scenario, Aaron Gordon would be the primary defender on AD, who’s strong enough to not get bullied by The Brow. There is a rough 3-inch height difference between the two that could give AD semi-open shots, but Gordon’s physicality gave an even taller Durant some trouble, so it’s not a foregone conclusion that The Brow could just bomb away with ease.
The more important question in any defensive matchup against AD is whether his hot mid-range shooting will continue. One of the biggest factors that led to L.A.’s 2020 championship run was The Brow turning into Dirk for two months by shooting 49% in the mid-range, which ranked in the 77th percentile. This year, he’s at 47% (83rd percentile) and the percentage of his shots taken from the mid-range sits at 47% too, which is a single percentage point higher than his frequency of attempts in 2020.
Simply put, AD is turning back the clock and looking like the player whom many expected to be a perennial MVP candidate. This presents Denver problems no matter who guards him, but if Vanderbilt starts and Gordon gets the assignment, the Nuggets will feel better defensively since Jokic will be around the basket more to provide rim protection.
Of course, starting Vanderbilt also raises the question as to who he’ll guard. L.A. could use his length to chase around MPJ and KCP to make sure they don’t get open shots, but I think that’ll be a waste since it doesn’t help the Lakers from slowing down the other monster on Denver: Jamal Murray.
Even though Vanderbilt’s minutes heavily fluctuated during the first two rounds, he still had many solid possessions guarding both Ja and Steph, and I’d expect that to continue on Murray as well — especially considering that the latter has had trouble against defenders with length.
Try only focusing on Jarred Vanderbilt's defense on Steph Curry during this vid. It covers every possession, starting at one timeout and ending at another.— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) May 3, 2023
Vando was glued to Curry for 94 feet through the whole stretch until Curry checked out. Zero breaks. pic.twitter.com/zMIsPuTKu1
However, having Vanderbilt start means that the Lakers would be conceding the possibility of hunting Jokic in P&Rs, and if AD is the screener, then Gordon would be the one switching on to the ballhandler. That’s what makes the playoffs so entertaining, though: it’s all about making adjustments and figuring out the right tradeoffs to make, and when one side runs out of options, it’s usually a wrap.
On the other hand, if L.A. decides to start their three-guard lineup of D-Lo, Reaves, and Schröder, then there’s no doubt that Jokic will be the one guarding AD. It’s not his ideal matchup, but it’s still much better than the alternative of putting him on a perimeter player who can create their own shot as the three Lakers guards all can.
This means that Gordon will guard LeBron instead, who’ll surely run countless P&Rs with AD to attack Jokic, which is something that the Suns didn’t do enough of. Interestingly, among the three guards and LeBron, the latter has actually run the least number of P&Rs at just 3.3 per game in the playoffs, and his abysmal points per possession (PPP) of 0.65 is by far the lowest among the four players too.
Even at his advanced age, it’s still shocking to see LeBron struggle so much as the P&R ballhandler, and none of L.A.’s other guards are particularly good at it either: Reaves’ 0.89 PPP is the highest on the Lakers, but even that is merely in the 45th percentile among all postseason players.
It isn’t all on the ballhandlers, though. AD himself has struggled as the roll man by only averaging 1.0 points on such plays, which is in the 22nd percentile. His 65% field goal percentage within 4 feet of the basket is also only in the 36th percentile and a huge drop off from the 76% (80th percentile) he put up in the regular season.
It is worth noting, though, that AD spent a lot of time matching up against Jaren Jackson Jr. and Draymond in the first two rounds, who finished 1st and 4th in DPOY voting this season, respectively. As was previously noted, Denver’s rim protection is its biggest defensive flaw, so even though The Brow has struggled around the rim thus far, expect him to finish a number of lobs against a vertically challenged Jokic.
That doesn’t just apply to AD, either: the Lakers as a whole are making 68.1% of their shots within 4 feet of the basket, which is 4th among the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs. The 68.7% that they shot in the regular season ranked in the top 10 too, and I’d expect L.A. to increase their close-range attempts considering they went from averaging 37.5% of their shots around the rim in the regular season (2nd) to just 30.4% so far during these playoffs.
Considering everything, I think the Lakers would be better off starting their 3 guards over Vanderbilt. Reaves and Schröder are both fine defenders who can take turns guarding Murray, and even though Jokic would have an easier time hunting them in the P&R, L.A. could send LeBron (who’ll guard Gordon) to help since Gordon’s an inconsistent shooter. More importantly, the offensive benefits of forcing Jokic to guard AD likely outweigh the defensive risks of leaving Vanderbilt on the bench, and it’ll force Denver to space out more defensively instead of just packing the paint too.
Regardless of who starts game 1, I’d expect Ham to try out both configurations to see which one yields the better results since this one tactical wrinkle could play a huge role in determining who emerges as the Western Conference champs.
X-factor: Aaron Gordon
Vanderbilt might seem like the obvious X-factor given everything that we discussed, but his impact on the series could be muted if Ham simply decides to play his three guards more. On the other hand, Gordon will be a crucial player regardless of either team’s lineup decisions, and that applies on both ends of the court.
Offensively, the Lakers will dare Gordon to shoot regardless of who his primary defender is. He’s made 38.5% of his threes so far in the playoffs on just 2.4 attempts per game, but literally all of his long-range shots have come with the closest defender at least 4 feet away, and most (2.0 out of his 2.4 attempts) have come with them at least 6 feet away, which NBA.com categorizes as being “wide open.” If he’s hitting enough shots, it might force one of AD or LeBron to play more on the perimeter and give Denver 1) better driving lanes, and 2) Jokic more room to operate in the post.
Even with those great looks, though, Gordon prefers to attack the basket, but he’ll have a difficult time finishing against either AD or LeBron. Remember, L.A.’s superstar duo is currently first and second in allowing the lowest opponent FG% at the rim, and Gordon’s struggled to finish during these playoffs by shooting just 60% within 4 feet of the basket (26th percentile). However, he has historically been a much better finisher and shot 73% (87th percentile) in the regular season.
With that said, Gordon’s biggest challenge lies in his own end considering he’ll be guarding one of AD or LeBron. Both of those players generate their best offense around the basket, and Gordon’s a mediocre rim protector at best. Opponents have shot 64.4% within 6 feet of the basket with Gordon as their primary defender, which is only 3.2% better than usual.
It’s a small sample size, to be sure, but things will only get more difficult considering AD and LeBron (when he wants to) can put more pressure at the rim than anyone the Nuggets have faced so far other than perhaps Anthony Edwards. Moreover, Gordon’s only an average defensive rebounder, which doesn’t bode well since he’ll be giving up size in both matchups. As a result, he’ll likely try and keep AD and LeBron farther out on the perimeter as neither is explosive enough to easily blow past him, and Denver will likely live with both L.A. stars resorting to shooting jumpers.
Ultimately, Gordon’s two-way performance will be key for the Nuggets in this series. They’re talented enough to advance even if he struggles, but a locked-in Gordon who’s making enough shots while making AD and LeBron work offensively will swing the WCF heavily in Denver’s favor.
I picked against the Lakers in both of their series so far but thought both would come down to the wire, so I wasn’t particularly surprised by either outcome.
However, I’d be genuinely shocked if they managed to beat this Denver squad.
That isn’t a referendum on L.A., but rather an endorsement of how good the Nuggets are: this isn’t the same team that surprisingly made the WCF in 2020, nor the ones hampered by injury the past two seasons. Jokic is a different beast now who also happens to be the best player in the world, and even if AD and company make their lives difficult, there’s no way of actually stopping this all-time great offense.
The biggest hurdle for the Lakers, though, is that their own offense simply isn’t good enough. They’ll be able to get some points in transition, but in half-court settings, the Nuggets have enough counters to make it too difficult for L.A. to keep up, even if they manage to exploit Denver’s shaky rim protection.
With that said, this will still be a very competitive West Finals. The Nuggets should win, but I’ve got too much respect for AD and LeBron to think that it’ll be short series, which is why I’m picking Denver in 6.
This week, please check out Jacob’s article on everything fans need to know about the draft lottery! The playoffs are still the main show, but for the teams that didn’t make it, the results of Tuesday’s lottery could be just as franchise-defining as a deep postseason run.
Thanks for reading, and may the ping pong balls be ever in your favor!
All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.