NBA playoffs: Can LeBron James, Anthony Davis slow Nikola Jokić, Nuggets’ high-octane offense?

May 15, 2023 in Sports

No. 1 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
Game 1: Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. ET Tuesday (ESPN)

Game 2: Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. ET Thursday (ESPN)

Game 3: Nuggets at Lakers, 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday (ABC)

Game 4: Nuggets at Lakers, 8:30 p.m. ET May 22 (ESPN)

*Game 5: Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. ET May 24 (ESPN)

*Game 6: Nuggets at Lakers, 8:30 p.m. ET May 26 (ESPN)

*Game 7: Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m. ET May 28 (ESPN)

*if necessary

BetMGM series odds: No. 1 Nuggets -155, No. 7 Lakers +125

For the second time in four years, the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers will square off for a spot in the NBA Finals. The 2023 Western Conference finals pits the postseason’s hottest offense against its stingiest defense: Denver scored a scorching 118.7 points per 100 possessions to blitz past the Timberwolves and Suns, while L.A. has allowed a scant 106.5 points per 100 in smothering the Grizzlies and the defending champion Warriors.

But while the teams and their principals haven’t changed since 2020, when the Lakers defeated Denver in five games en route to the franchise’s 17th NBA title, an awful lot has. (Like, for example, this iteration not being staged in a bespoke virus-circumventing bubble in Disney World.)

Only six players who saw minutes in that series will feature in the rematch. For the Nuggets, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray continue to lead the way, making beautiful music in one of the league’s most devastating two-man games. Michael Porter Jr., who averaged just under 22 minutes a game against L.A. in 2020 as a 21-year-old whom head coach Michael Malone didn’t totally trust on defense, has rounded into a more dependable supercharged third option … albeit one who still sometimes doesn’t close games, because Malone doesn’t totally trust his (admittedly improved!) defense. At least, not as much as he trusts Swiss Army knife Bruce Brown.

The Lakers return Anthony Davis, whose red-hot jump-shooting performance from the bubble hasn’t carried over to 2023’s opening rounds, but who has been far and away the most dominant defensive player in these playoffs. They also still have a guy named LeBron Raymone James — not quite as devastating at age 38 as he was in dispatching Denver at age 35, but still eminently capable of putting an opponent to sleep, as he did in hanging 30-9-9 on Golden State in Game 6 to send Steph, Klay, Draymond and Co. off into a long offseason.

And then there’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who started at shooting guard for the Lakers in the 2020 conference finals, averaging 30 minutes a night, shooting 44% from deep, and shouldering primary responsibility for slowing down Murray. Now, though, Caldwell-Pope lines up alongside Murray in the backcourt of a Denver starting five that has blitzed opponents by 9.1 points per 100 in this postseason; he just tied his career playoff high with 21 points in the Nuggets’ Game 6 obliteration of Phoenix.

Beyond them, though, things look a little different in both shops. Everything in Denver still orbits around two-time MVP Jokić’s playmaking brilliance, but new recruits Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Aaron Gordon and rookie Christian Braun give the Nuggets more defensive versatility and capability than they had in 2020. And while the general recipe remains the same for the Lakers — just enough offense in the half-court and through opportunistic pace-pushing in transition to allow that suffocating defense to hold up — the ingredients are almost entirely different, from the head coach (bye-bye, Frank Vogel; hello, Darvin Ham) to a perimeter rotation dramatically overhauled in February to devastating effect.

The two teams split their season series, 2-2. It’s unclear just how much we can take from the regular-season matchups, though, considering all four took place before the trade deadline, when L.A. remade its roster and kicked its season into gear. The Lakers’ second-leading scorer against Denver was Russell Westbrook, and the only three Lakers to appear in all four games against the Nuggets were Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn and Damian Jones; none of those guys is still on the team.

Know who is, though? This guy:

… which is where our conversation ought to start.

3 keys to the series
AD vs. Jokić: Irresistible force vs. immovable object?
Back in 2020, the Lakers limited Jokić’s effectiveness — and yes, given how ludicrous an offensive weapon Jokić is, 22-7-5 on .616 true shooting is “limited” — with consistent physicality and aggression at the point of attack, paired with the ever-looming threat of Davis lurking along the back line. But Dwight Howard’s not here anymore. (He’s, like, really not here.)

Neither, for that matter, is JaVale McGee. These days, the Lakers’ center rotation is Davis and a few 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 dudes — LeBron, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Wenyen Gabriel, the ghost of Tristan Thompson — that Jokić should be able to overpower and overwhelm. (There’s also Mo Bamba, but considering he saw only garbage-time minutes against Memphis and didn’t get any burn against Golden State, I’d be surprised to see him here.)

Ham might decide to switch up the matchups, putting those power forwards on Jokić and slotting Davis onto Gordon to allow him to roam off the less-threatening shooter, put a second big body between Jokić and the basket, and generally try to throw sand in the gears of the Nuggets’ smooth-running offense. By and large, though, the bet here is that the task of slowing down the two-time MVP will fall to Davis. It’s one that he — like just about every other defender — has struggled with: In seven meetings over the last three regular seasons, Jokić has scored 51 points on 24-for-41 shooting (58.5%) with Davis as his closest defender, according to Second Spectrum’s matchup data.

The only real success that Memphis or Golden State had in scoring against the Lakers while Davis was on the floor came when they were able to pull him out of the paint and create enough space to attack the rim against a Lakers team without much else in the way of rim protection. Jokić, who’s shooting 19-for-40 (47.5%) from 3-point range in the playoffs, should pose enough of a threat to draw him out; if the rest of the Lakers aren’t locked into their coverages off the ball, the postseason’s leading assist man could find opportunities to set up teammates slicing into a lane no longer locked down by its leading shot-blocker.

It’s not like Jokić is going to just hang out on the perimeter, though; you don’t become the No. 1 paint scorer in the playoffs and the league’s premier low-post threat by floating outside. It’ll be interesting to see how much help the Lakers send when Jokić gets the ball on the block; they double-teamed him on 11 of his 32 post-ups against them during the regular season, according to Second Spectrum, and the Nuggets scored 16 points on those trips (1.45 points per possession).

That, as always, is the catch-22 with Jokić. Bring two to the ball to try to crank up the heat on him, and he’ll repeatedly find the open man to create wide-open 3-point attempts. Keep everybody at home on the shooters and take your chances guarding him one-on-one, and he might put 53 on you. There are no easy answers for him; against Golden State, though, Davis reminded everyone just how capable he is of acing the toughest tests. Slowing down Jokić enough to beat Denver four times out of seven promises to be his most arduous one yet.

Can Aaron Gordon keep the clamps on?
In the interest of equal time, it’s worth noting that Davis has fought fire with fire in the big-man matchup: In those seven regular-season meetings since the bubble, according to Second Spectrum, he’s scored 61 points on 29-for-49 shooting (59.2%) with Jokić as his closest defender, giving just as good as he’s gotten more often than not.

In theory, you could see Malone deciding to stick with the cross-matches that Denver has deployed successfully at times in previous rounds, putting the quicker and more athletic Gordon — fresh off two stellar rounds of defensive work on Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant, with spot duty on just about every other dangerous offensive player on the Wolves and Suns — on Davis. Sliding Gordon to AD would allow Denver to station Jokić on a non-shooter — looking at you, Vando — which would keep him out of pick-and-roll actions and closer to the paint, where he’s such a factor as a magnet-handed defensive rebounder limiting second-chance opportunities for the opposition.

Setting aside the likelihood that there’s no chance the Lakers would let Jokić off the hook that easy — I’m guessing that if playing Vanderbilt gives Denver too clean a hiding space/gunks up the offense too much, Ham would lean harder on Hachimura, or even go smaller with more minutes for Round 2 folk hero Lonnie Walker IV — AG-on-AD creates another, bigger problem. If Gordon’s guarding AD, and Jokić is guarding whichever Laker Malone deems least threatening, then who’s guarding this guy?

KCP and Murray, as competitive as they are, don’t have a prayer of banging with LeBron effectively enough to keep him from getting wherever he wants to go. And even with LeBron carrying 20 NBA seasons and more than 65,000 regular- and postseason minutes around on a set of wheels that includes a torn tendon in his right foot, I’m not sure Malone wants to put that on Porter’s plate. Gordon might be Denver’s best bet on Davis, but he’s definitely its best shot at matching up with LeBron — especially when the Lakers go small with the James/Hachimura frontcourt when AD’s off the floor, since he’s effectively taken over as the Nuggets’ backup center in the postseason. (James’ former teammate, Jeff Green, will see some time in that matchup in this series, too; I’m not sure what Malone’s appetite is for dusting off dudes like Vlatko Cancar and Zeke Nnaji, but if he’s searching for some size to spend a few possessions on LeBron, they might merit a look.)

James averaged 27 points and nine assists on 53.6% shooting in the Lakers’ 2020 series win; he provides a different, more physical challenge defensively than either KAT or KD did. If Gordon can limit him, and if the rest of the Nuggets’ perimeter corps can keep L.A.’s supporting cast from going off — how well KCP, Murray, Brown and Braun can contain Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Dennis Schröder in the pick-and-roll should be a really interesting battleground — then Denver might be able to clamp down enough to live with whatever damage Davis does against Jokić. But if Gordon doesn’t have a big defensive series, the Lakers’ chances of springing the by-seed-line-if-nothing-else upset improve considerably.

Can the Lakers push the tempo?
L.A. can’t count on just being able to go bucket-for-bucket against an opponent that ranked seventh in the NBA in half-court offensive efficiency during the regular season and has been even better thus far in the playoffs. The Lakers have to find opportunities to hit Denver on the counterattack, hunting for the kind of easy baskets you get attacking a scrambling defense by getting out on the fast break.

Only six teams played in transition more frequently than the Lakers during the regular season, according to Cleaning the Glass. They’ve cranked that up another notch in the postseason, running more often than anybody besides the Kings and Nets.

Turning defense into offense isn’t always easy against a Nuggets team that finished just outside the top 10 in offensive rebound rate during the regular season, recovered nearly 28% of its misses against Minnesota and more than 30% against Phoenix, and has been one of the league’s best teams at getting back to prevent transition opportunities all season long. A few extra quick-score possessions can make a major difference, though. They certainly did against the Warriors: More than 22% of the Lakers’ possessions came in transition in their blowout win in Game 3, and they scored more than 1.7 points per play on the break in the Game 6 closeout.

If the Lakers can keep Jokić, Gordon and Co. off the offensive glass enough to clear the rebound and tilt the possession game their way once or twice in this series, they’ll create some margin for error, taking a bit pressure off both their half-court offense and a defense that figures to have its work cut out for it. If they can’t find a way to carve out some easy ones, though, the task of standing up to one of the most potent attacks in the league possession after possession starts to look all the more daunting.