So much has changed since the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets clashed in this round three seasons ago in the Orlando bubble — and yes, the reappearance of all four bubble semifinalists lends their 2020 runs some credibility ballast they never needed anyway.

The bubble was different, but that never made what anyone achieved (or failed to achieve) there any less meaningful. It was the only option. There was a four-month break, no fans, a friendlier shooting background and no travel. Every contender dealt with the same conditions. Some quaked. Some rose up.

The Lakers then, as now, were win-now contenders. The Nuggets were newbies, usurpers, uninvited crashers of the presumed Battle for Los Angeles conference finals between the Lakers and the LA Clippers.

Only Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Vlatko Cancar remain from that 2020 Denver team. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only Lakers holdovers. Injuries have dotted their head-to-head games since. All four of their matchups this season came before the Lakers traded Russell Westbrook.

In those conference finals, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope guarded Murray; now he starts alongside Murray. Those Lakers played traditional centers, sparing Davis the Jokic assignment on defense — and giving Jokic safer landing spots on Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. Barring an improbable Mohamed Bamba reemergence, the Lakers don’t even play a traditional center beyond Davis. Would they dare toss Tristan Thompson into this?

Denver had quietly been building toward that 2020 run, even if it seemed to most like a surprise. It won 46 games in 2017-18, missing the playoffs on the last day of the season after losing a winner-gets-the-eighth-seed finale on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the team’s flight home, Jokic strode from row to row, thanked everyone and vowed the Nuggets would soon take the next step, officials have said.

They advanced to the second round the next season, losing Game 7 at home to the Portland Trail Blazers. That summer, eyeing the big wings poised to rule the West, they traded for Jerami Grant; Grant guarded James in the bubble conference finals. Grant’s departure in free agency and crushing injuries shoved Denver sideways — and obscured that Denver never really stopped building.

Jokic became an unstoppable MVP machine. Porter developed into an ideal third option, and learned how to rotate within Denver’s frenetic defense. The Nuggets decided at the 2021 trade deadline they were ready for it all, and acquired Aaron Gordon to fill Grant’s vacancy — betting that Gordon’s heft, defense, rebounding and cutting would prove a better fit alongside Jokic.

For eight games, the Murray/Jokic/Porter/Gordon quartet was utterly dominant. Then Murray tore his ACL, missing the 2021 playoffs and all of last season. The Nuggets waited. As Murray (and Porter) recovered, the front office tweaked, stocking the roster with 3-and-D wings who could get around screens and guard up in size.

They have been building to this moment, now.

For most of the last two seasons, it looked as if the Lakers’ moment — and maybe James’ in the championship chase — had passed. Their initial Westbrook trade was a disaster. They were at risk of missing the play-in tournament. James and Davis alternated stints on the injured list. When James injured his foot Feb. 26, the Lakers were 29-32 and in 12th place.

Davis helped keep the Lakers afloat until James returned. When he did, the team began to click. Austin Reaves reached a new level; the trio of Reaves, D’Angelo Russell, and Dennis Schroder provided enough ballhandling juice for James to pick his spots. All three could run the pick-and-roll with James screening or screen for him — actions that will be key as James hunts the Murray mismatch.

The lineup of those three, James and Davis has emerged as a core part of the Lakers’ rotation. In a snap, the Lakers transformed from a jumbled mess into a team that knows exactly who they are.

Jarred Vanderbilt guards every position, and fills so much space on defense with his speed and wingspan. The Lakers could use him on almost every Denver player. Their sheer size with James, Vanderbilt and Davis together is an important weapon against Denver — regardless of whether Vanderbilt starts or comes off the bench (as he did in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors, when the Lakers started Schroder to loosen spacing on offense).

Murray and Jokic make art in the midrange, prying open little windows with hesitation dribbles, shoulder fakes and balletic footwork — and slipping the ball through those windows before defenses discover the space was really even there. The Lakers, heads on a swivel and arms spread wide, can interfere with those windows. They are a legitimately great defensive team.

This is the series for fans weary of 3-pointers. The Nuggets and Lakers ranked 25th and 26th, respectively, in 3-point attempts. Much of this series will be waged in that gray area between the top of the key and the charge circle. That is where Davis blots out everything.

Davis playing at his peak on defense is the single biggest reason the Lakers are here, again. He lords over every possession: OK, where is he? Oh, he’s over there. So what does that mean for us? What can we run? What *can’t* we run?

Davis can drop back against Jokic in the pick-and-roll, disrupt Murray’s pocket passes and shift back to Jokic in time to challenge Jokic’s pet floaters and hooks.

If Jokic pops for 3s, Davis is fast enough to fly out and contest — and nimble enough to stop his momentum on a pump fake, and stick close to Jokic on pump-and-go drives.

Both teams could finagle matchups so that Jokic and Davis don’t always have to guard each other. The Nuggets could slot Jokic on Vanderbilt, Gordon on Davis and Caldwell-Pope (or one of Bruce Brown and Christian Braun in reserve units) onto James — testing James’ appetite for mashing bully-ball. This is not a fantasyland idea; the Nuggets have done it before, even stashing Jokic on guards and having him hang back in a one-man zone. (They have also played a standard zone against the Lakers on a few possessions.)

The easy counter for the Lakers is having whoever Jokic is guarding screen for James, Russell or Reaves. Denver could try to switch Jokic out of those actions on the fly, but you can only play hide-and-seek for so long.

James engaged overpowering chessmaster gear against the Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies only when absolutely necessary. The Nuggets are a step up in competition. The Lakers need more from James. If he was saving himself, it was for these games.

Hiding Jokic away from Davis gets dicier if the Lakers start Schroder over Vanderbilt. My best guess would be they start with Vanderbilt to add size and test what his versatility might unlock — with Schroder looming as a potential mid-series adjustment.

Vanderbilt makes the most sense on Porter Jr. — long and fast enough to blur Porter’s shooting sight lines. James has mostly guarded Gordon, and he will drift from Gordon to clutter the paint. Gordon will have to hit some wide open 3s, and sneak back door for cuts and offensive rebounds. I’m not sure he can get much traction against James in the post, but sprinting into some quick seals against him is worth a shot. Gordon is a brute, and his physicality bothered Kevin Durant in the last round.

Could the Lakers try Vanderbilt on Murray and attempt to switch some Murray-Jokic pick-and-rolls? Vanderbilt has already guarded Ja Morant and Stephen Curry. That would require slotting a smaller guard onto Porter, but teams have been doing that for years.

Porter will face that coverage plenty when the Lakers play all three of Russell, Reaves and Schroder. This feels like a Porter and Murray series — if Denver is to win it. Porter can rain fire over those guards, and has busted out a more refined off-the-bounce game. The Lakers will try to keep one of Schroder, Reaves and Vanderbilt on Murray — hiding Russell on Caldwell-Pope — but Murray should have space to bob and weave. (Lonnie Walker IV has reps guarding Murray too.)

Murray can try to engineer the Russell matchup by using guard-guard screens to get switches. Even when Russell is on Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets should drag him into actions with Jokic — dribble handoffs for Caldwell-Pope at the left elbow, the occasional inverted pick-and-roll with Jokic handling.

Another possible look: Could the Lakers even experiment with Vanderbilt (and Rui Hachimura) on Jokic, and slide Davis onto Gordon? Vanderbilt’s previous two teams toyed with this on a small handful of possessions. It did not go well. Jokic destroys undersized power forwards, going back to Portland trying to guard him with Al-Farouq Aminu in the 2019 playoffs.

The idea would be that Vanderbilt could front Jokic, with Davis and James lurking behind him. That setup could protect Davis against foul trouble. Foul trouble to either star big could swing a quarter, which could swing a game, which could swing the series. How much time can either team buy getting cute with matchups? Both teams will throw out lots of different looks on defense.

Chicanery aside, Davis and Jokic will spend tons of time — probably most of the series — guarding each other. Jokic has muscled Davis in the post, and gotten him to bite on his pivoty fakes.

Davis counters with length and hops; Jokic might spin Davis deep into the paint, but Davis can leap and bother Jokic’s shot.

The Lakers will also send Davis help, including some hard double-teams. You just can’t do that against Jokic too often. The reads are too easy for him. He either gets rid of it early, as the double is in motion, or backs down until he sees the defense expose the thing he wants — the thing the defense might not even realize it is exposing. The Nuggets can catapult Jokic into cleaner post-ups by slamming his man with cross screens — sometimes from surprise angles.

On the other end, Davis has had success using his speed to hurt Jokic. He has beaten Jokic with baseline drop-steps from the left block. He likes facing up, taking one or two hard dribbles into the middle and easing into 12-foot jumpers. If Jokic sits on that, Davis might spin baseline.

Davis is, of course, an elite pick-and-roll finisher. Expect Denver to vary its pick-and-roll coverages against the Lakers. They prefer having Jokic corral the pick-and-roll high up. That amounts to putting two on the ball for a beat, conceding a 4-on-3 behind the play — triggering long rotations everywhere.

It’s a risky scheme, but the Nuggets are good at it. Give them one bad shooter — one place from which it is safe to rove — and those rotations get less stressful. That player is Vanderbilt. If Vanderbilt is clogging the lane, it’s also harder for James to burrow to paydirt when he posts up smaller players.

That is why the Lakers may have to limit Vanderbilt’s minutes if the series gets tight, or tilts toward Denver. Even so, expect the Nuggets to take an extra half-step from Schroder, Hachimura and James — and swarm the paint.

Almost doubling ball handlers is a necessity for Denver against elite pull-up long-range shooters — Curry, Durant, Devin Booker. The Lakers do not really have those sorts of players. Denver had Jokic drop back against Chris Paul pick-and-rolls and some actions against Minnesota in the first round. They nabbed Caldwell-Pope, Brown and Braun in part because those guys slither around screens untouched — staying attached to ball handlers so that they don’t have an unfettered runway toward Jokic. I suspect we’ll see that again, maybe in larger doses.

Can Jokic hold up with James rumbling at him?

Or will James rev up and plow through Jokic’s ground-bound defense? James will also try to split traps, turn the corner on Jokic’s hedges and fake toward picks before bolting the other way.

Denver will likely try ducking screens for James — forming a shell around the paint and daring James to launch jumpers. James hit 32% from deep in the regular season and is 21-of-80 in the playoffs.

That’s easier said than done. James is fast enough to beat defenders to the paint if they dip under picks. Davis and Schroder are smart about rolling into James’ defenders, blockading their path back to James and sometimes forcing switches. James is cagey doing that when he acts as a screener for Lakers guards.

The Lakers can also mix up the location and timing of their pick-and-rolls. Davis can dart behind Jokic for layups on pocket passes, or lob dunks:

Clearing one side for the James-Davis two-man game — as the Lakers do there — gives Davis more space and complicates Denver’s help rotations. The corner pindowns the Lakers love running for Davis — in which a guard screens for Davis in the left corner, allowing him to curl up and catch it on the move — are another way to make Jokic move his feet.

The Lakers ranked No. 2 in the share of shot attempts that came within the restricted area. Denver’s opponents hit 71% of such shots against the Nuggets — the second-highest (i.e. second-worst) figure among defenses. Denver’s rim defense has been better in the postseason — playing the rim-phobic Suns helped — but bludgeoning the basket would seem an important tool now.

On the flip side, Denver is a low foul team. A free throw chasm favoring the Lakers is not baked into this series. The Nuggets have never been a really high-turnover team with Jokic, and they have taken extra care of the ball in the playoffs — crucial for keeping the Lakers out of transition. The Lakers’ half-court offense can get stuck in mud. The first step to beating them is limiting the easy points they get outside that context.

Both are solid rebounding teams. Jokic and Davis tend to rest at the same times — meaning we could see Denver’s small-ball groups with Gordon at center face off against equivalent Lakers lineups with James and Hachimura splitting center duties. Will either coach rejigger rotations to get their star center minutes against opposing smaller units? Kevon Looney feasted on the glass when Davis rested.

This should be a good, hard-fought series. Both teams have advantages to leverage. It could go either way.

It sounds hokey, but it just feels like Denver’s time. They are younger, healthier, undefeated at home in the playoffs — with home-court advantage again. Nuggets in six.

Source by [author_name]

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *