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Five Things to Watch for in the Western Conference Finals

by Josh Mullenix | @TheJMULL_

The Nuggets were down 3-1 to the Utah Jazz in round one of the Western Conference playoffs. They won three straight to advance. Denver was then down 3-1 to the favorite to win the NBA Finals in the semifinals. They blistered the Clippers in the second half of each of the next three games and Los Angeles rolled over. Again, they advance.

The Lakers’ journey to the West Finals couldn’t have been more different. After a discouraging loss to the Trail Blazers in Game 1 of round one, L.A. won four straight and then did the same to the Rockets in round two. Apart from two games, the Lakers have looked dominant and just like a team led by LeBron James should look in the playoffs.

Now, they meet in the Western Conference Finals. One team that was always supposed to be there and another team who almost lost to a depleted Jazz team in round one. However, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have arrived in a big way and what lies ahead is a very interesting series. Let’s take a look at five things to watch for in this unlikely West Finals. 

  1. Who has the best third player (and supporting cast)?

From a very basic standpoint, these two teams have a similar build. They have two stars, or superstars, and they try to piece together the rest around a very good 1-2 punch. Jokic and Murray are averaging 25.4 and 27.1 points, respectively, per game in these playoffs. There isn’t another player on the Denver roster averaging more than 11.1. We’ll get to some of the other things those players are doing well, but Denver’s big two are doing the overwhelming majority of the scoring and playmaking. 

The Lakers find themselves in a similar situation. Anthony Davis is averaging 27.6 to James’ 26.6. Kyle Kuzma is third in the scoring category during these playoffs at just 11 points per game. The question here is not who has the better big two. Clearly, James and Davis outrank Denver’s two best players, but who has the better supporting cast could decide who wins this series.

For Denver, they have a lot of solid pieces that played well at the end of the Clippers series. Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Milsap and Gary Harris are all important parts of Denver’s rotation and don’t forget about Monte Morris coming off the bench. In their one win against the Lakers this season, Grant, Milsap, Harris, Morris and Mason Plumlee combined for 48 points and Denver won a game by 24 in which Murray had just six points. 

Through the first two rounds, the Lakers have gotten consistent contribution from one of their role players, whether it be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Markieff Morris, Alex Caruso or Kuzma. Davis and James have gotten help in both playoff series. Of course, each team’s big two will have to show up every night, but whoever has the better supporting cast might find themselves advancing to the Finals. 

  1. Nikola Jokic is going to change the Lakers rotation. 

Jokic is a mismatch in every sense of the word. He’s one of the most impactful centers of all-time and the first one who is truly capable of taking over a game since early 2000’s Shaq. He puts opposing defenders in situations they very rarely find themselves in with his ability to run an offense, a fast break, shoot a three and also work in the paint. He’s also seven feet tall, which fundamentally changes the rotation that Lakers coach Frank Vogel will have to implement.

Jokic will force the Lakers to play more Javale McGee and Dwight Howard to eat up some of those minutes on defense. No offense to McGee or Howard, but the more they play, the better that is for Denver. While Davis should be guarding the best center in the NBA in crunch time, I doubt he’ll have that assignment all game to conserve energy. The Lakers are going to have to completely change their rotation. McGee played more than eight minutes only once against the Rockets and didn’t see the floor in Game 4. Howard only saw the floor in two of the five games. Both players played more than 11 minutes in Game 1 (a loss) and then Vogel completely abandoned a center and put Davis at the five. On Aug. 10, the two bigs played almost 30 minutes combined against the Nuggets and McGee spent all of his time on Jokic. 

Jokic is a playmaking point center who can score from anywhere on the floor. McGee and Howard are old-school bigs who make their money rebounding and protecting the basket. They’re going to have to adapt in this one, and if nothing else, play big minutes against a Nuggets team that has two seven footers.

  1. Who guards Anthony Davis?

On the flip side, Jokic is going to spend a lot of time guarding McGee and Howard as well, leaving the following question: Who guards Davis? On Aug. 10, Milsap spent the most time on Davis and got dominated at the rim. According to NBA.com, Milsap defended Davis for 4:40 in their last matchup and Davis shot 75% from the floor during that time. When the Lakers went small, Jokic got the Davis assignment and Davis was successful against both players, finishing that game with 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting and getting to the free throw line 12 times. 

The Lakers have the bodies to put on Jokic. While he’s an unbelievable talent, his lack of explosiveness means the Lakers have a group of players at least capable of guarding him. Davis presents a different challenge. His mobility and ability to get downhill quickly makes him a tough assignment for everybody but especially players like Mason Plumlee, who is the other big body to guard Davis. On Aug. 10, only Jokic and Milsap played more than 90 seconds of defense against Davis.

As big of a mismatch as Jokic is, Davis might be a bigger one in this particular series. The list of guys capable of guarding Davis is very short and he’s been a problem all year. In four games against Denver, he’s averaging 29.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. 

  1. Will the Nuggets get off to a better start in this series? Because Lebron isn’t going to let them win three straight.

What happened in round one was surprising but I believe the Nuggets emerged victorious as the better team. In round two, the Clippers rolled over in one of the more embarrassing collapses in playoff history. They simply gave up and looked scared in the second half of the last three games of the West semifinals. Whether it’s superior talent or playing really well with their backs against the wall, you have to give Denver credit for fighting back and playing their best basketball when they have to.

In this series, Denver can’t afford to not really start showing up until Game 5. This is LeBron James and the one thing he does better than everybody is that he doesn’t lose to teams he’s not supposed to lose to. Even in the Finals, Lebron is overachieving in terms of times his team was favored to win the championship. In other words, he has more rings than times his team was the best. 

All that to say, if you let Lebron go up 3-1, you are not coming back. It’s that simple. If LeBron has to lay down a 65-point triple-double, he’s going to do it before he lets the Nuggets come back like that again. The Trail Blazers were supposed to put up a fight. Nope. The Rockets were supposed to at least provide an interesting series. Nope. The Clippers lost focus and didn’t step up in the big moments. LeBron doesn’t get scared and he’s always there in big situations. 

  1. Lakers in 6.

I almost want to say Lakers in five, but I have the utmost respect for Murray and Jokic. They are for real and I must apologize to Jokic for thinking he can’t be the best player on a championship team because of his position. I was wrong. The guy is unbelievable and worthy of superstar status. Murray showed up in a Game 7 like he never has before. These guys are for real and I think they are going to put up a fight.

With that being said, until Lebron loses a series other than a Finals, I’m not going to bet against him. Certainly not against this still very young Nuggets team who needed six straight elimination game wins to get here (take a moment to appreciate that). Davis will run rampant in this series and it’s not like they have anyone who you absolutely love guarding LeBron. This series will get to six because Jokic will be very good and Murray will take advantage of the advantage he has in the backcourt. But at the end of the day, the Lakers have LeBron and another superstar, something that the Clippers didn’t have, and I find it hard to believe Los Angeles will lose focus like the team it shares a city with did. 

 LeBron gets back to yet another Finals. Lakers in six.

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