Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Lakers 2023 Western Conference Finals Preview

Los Angeles Times

Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Lakers 2023 Western Conference Finals Preview


Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Lakers 2023 Western Conference Finals Preview


An electric and entertaining first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs have led to this. The Western Conference Finals are here and sport two teams that have taken unique paths to get to this point. The seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers started the year 2-10 and were out of the playoff race for much of the season. However, a flurry of deadline deals made by Rob Pelinka and a late-season surge from the Lakers newly shaped roster got them into the play-in. From there, the Lakers meshed even more, defeating the all bark no bite Memphis Grizzlies in six games before doing the same to the defending champion Golden State Warriors. 

In the case of the Denver Nuggets, they should be here and they know it. The Nuggets were a buzzsaw all season long, slicing their way through the regular season en route to the top seed in the West. In the playoffs, Denver gentlemen swept their way through the Minnesota Timberwolves and then overmatched an out-manned Phoenix Suns team in a quick not long six games. That brings us to the Lakers vs. Nuggets matchup in the Western Conference Finals. A rematch of their 2020 bubble bout in which the Lakers won in six games, however, three years have passed since then and a lot has changed for both sides. From matchups to scheme thoughts to x-factors, let’s preview the Lakers vs. Nuggets WCF. 

Nuggets matchups on Lakers: 

KCP on Russell 

Murray on Reaves 

Porter/Jokic on Vanderbilt 

Gordon/Porter on LeBron 

Jokic/Gordon on Davis 

Despite the talk, Denver’s postseason defense has been sound so far. The big question for the Nuggets matchup-wise is how much Jokic ends up engaging Davis on this end of the floor. If the Lakers roll with Vanderbilt on the floor, who will Denver place on him as a primary source of help defense? Gordon has the strength to hold up with Davis and if he’s successful in forcing missed jumpers, that allows Jokic to fit into an off-ball roamer role more. 

The other factor Denver will have to contend with here is who guards a revved-up LeBron James. Denver can survive if James is in off-ball pilot mode, but if the King turns his motor up as he did in Game 6 versus the Warriors, that could spell a bit of trouble for Denver’s defensive matchups. The utilization of Gordon and Porter for off-ball purposes and how that impacts the Joker’s defensive role will be intriguing to watch. 

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Lakers matchups on Nuggets: 

Vanderbilt/Reaves on Murray 

Russell on KCP 

Reaves/Vanderbilt on Porter 

LeBron/Davis on Gordon 

Davis on Jokic  

For the Lakers, the question is more about who is in the lineup than who is each player defending. If LA goes small with Schroder, that throws an interesting wrench into the equation but let’s just say they don’t. Vanderbilt has defended Ja Morant and Steph Curry in these playoffs so it adds up that he will initially take on the Jamal Murray assignment. Between Reaves and Schroder at the point of attack too, Murray will see a lot of different hands in his face in this series. 

Most seem to think Anthony Davis has to take on Jokic and while AD will be the primary guy on the two-time MVP, it makes some sense to place Davis off the ball to preserve his rim protection and let another defender hang around Jokic on the perimeter. Nonetheless, the mixing and matching the Lakers will have to do defensively will be fascinating to monitor as the series progresses. 

How Will LA Defend Denver: 

This side of the floor will pit each team’s strength against each other. The Lakers malleable defense anchored by Anthony Davis against a movement-heavy Nuggets offense centered around the brilliance of Nikola Jokic. Denver’s foundation is built off of the two-man game between Jokic and Murray. The number of open shots at the rim off of cuts from their role players will depend on what the Lakers decide to give the Nuggets on this end. 

If Davis can handle Jokic on the perimeter, then the Lakers don’t have to send extra help in the form of doubles which leaves openings for cutters at the rim. However, if Jokic is handling this matchup, the Lakers will need to get creative with what they send toward Jokic. Blitzing Murray and forcing him to be a playmaker could yield positive results if it generates turnovers. However, it’s best not to give Jokic an advantage in the middle of the floor if that’s not the case. 

The Lakers must position Davis to have as much impact as possible but it all depends on how he fairs in that matchup against the Joker. A key for the Lakers defensively, is their off-ball awareness when defending the Nuggets motion. In particular, Lakers defenders must be active in tracking the Nuggets back cuts and movement off the ball both in structured sets and more importantly when it occurs within the natural flow of the Nuggets offense. 

How Will Denver Defend LA: 

The Nuggets have been a high hedge and recover team for much of the postseason coverage-wise but have shifted when they need to. It’s reasonable to think the Lakers will want to bring Jokic into the pick-and-roll as much as they can but this is where the matchups come into play. If Denver has Jokic hedge ball screens, the Nuggets will need Gordon or Porter to bring their best as weak-side rim protectors. 

A question the Nuggets will have to answer is how much leeway they give the Lakers ball handlers in the pick-and-roll. Denver could go to drop coverage with Jokic if the likes of Russell and Reaves aren’t on their games as scorers. As talked about above, the give-and-take game changes a lot if LeBron James is getting downhill at will. What Denver does if they have to cross that bridge will be interesting. 

The Lakers offense isn’t close to as intricate as the Nuggets but it is tough to deal with given all the shot creation options LA can throw out there. Denver is a team with a lot of size so they’ll likely be able to contend well with the Lakers primary attacks. If Vanderbilt is on the floor, the Nuggets must use him as the pressure point to bring help off of. If it’s Schroder who sees more time, Denver may have to counter with more Bruce Brown and shift KCP to the wing. The Nuggets defense is certainly capable of staying with the Lakers offense beat for beat.  

Lakers X-Factors: 

D’Angelo Russell- The Lakers will need a dynamic shot-making series from their lead scoring guard. Russell has the capability of going on electric scoring spurts where he can’t miss from long range. He’s a vital part of LA’s three-man actions with LBJ and AD. His versatile shooting package and pick-and-roll ball handling are an ingrained part of the Lakers offense, meaning Russell has to bring his best to swing this series for the Lakers. 

Rui Hachimura- Washington is still knocking their head against the wall watching Hachimura ball out for stretches of these playoffs. Rui was left open quite a lot against Memphis and he made them pay, burying a barrage of three-pointers in several games of that series. He wasn’t a big factor against the Warriors but he could pop back up against the Nuggets. The Lakers may need to sprinkle in a wing defender who can also be a reliable shooting threat, which is where Hachimura’s services could be useful. 

Nuggets X-Factors: 

Michael Porter Jr.- The hot and cold nature of MPJ will have to take a turn for the better against the Lakers. Porter Jr. must be on his game as a shotmaker from the outside. If he’s knocking down threes with ease, the Nuggets offense can run circles around anyone, including the Lakers. Porter’s shooting presence will make the Lakers defense think twice about doubling Jokic and allow the NBA’s best two-man game to eat. 

Aaron Gordon- In addition to being the Nuggets most vital defensive piece, Gordon is also a key on offense. Although he’s capable of hitting shots, Gordon is the weakest shooter on the floor for the Nuggets. This means the Lakers will sag off Gordon to provide help defense in other areas. Gordon can capitalize off this if he hits his open shots. Gordon will also play a big role in helping to defend Anthony Davis, making him the ultimate x-factor in this series.  

Series Prediction: Nuggets over Lakers in seven games 

This will be the third straight time I’m picking against the Lakers in these playoffs. In all honesty, LA has a great shot to win this series and the path is there for them to do it in less than seven games. However, the Nuggets have an impeccable offensive system that isn’t easily broken. They have a perfect playoff rotation and Nikola Jokic, who is playing like the best player in basketball right now. It will be a back-and-forth series with many highs and lows for each side, but give me the Nuggets to advance to their first-ever NBA Finals behind a game seven victory at home over the Lakers. 

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