The Western Conference finals matchup is set, with the Lakers taking on the Nuggets.
The Crossover staff makes their predictions and weighs in on how the two teams will fare against each other. You can find our Eastern Conference predictions here.
Rohan Nadkarni: Nuggets over Lakers in seven
Denver was my Finals pick at the beginning of the restart so I have to honor that now that the Nugs have made it this far. How will this series play out? It’s going to be fascinating to see if the Lakers commit to playing small after playing their best ball of the season against Houston. Javale McGee saw scant minutes in Round 2, while Dwight Howard was practically mothballed. LA got timely shooting from its role players against Houston, and more importantly, its defense feasted on Houston’s simplistic attack.
Denver presents a better challenge. The Nuggets have shooting all over the floor, and Jokic is fresh off a series in which he outperformed LeBron rival Kawhi Leonard. I think this series hinges on Jokic holding up defensively on Anthony Davis, which is a dicey proposition for Denver. AD is hitting his stride, and if he plays the five, Jokic will have nowhere to hide. Davis can also guard Jokic more credibly than anybody else Denver has faced so far, possibly eliminating the need for the double teams that put the Clippers in a bind. Whoever gets the better of the other when both teams shift small will likely determine the outcome here.
Jerami Grant isn’t a LeBron stopper, but he can do a passable job with that assignment. (I don’t even know what passable means here. James is going to get his numbers.) Denver will have more shooting on the floor if these teams play the smaller lineups they did in Round 2 (meaning no center for LA, no Millsap for the Nuggets), and that’s where it will have to thrive to win this series. If LeBron is roaming to slow down the Murray-Jokic pick and roll, there will be open shots for guys like Gary Harris and Michael Porter.
It should be an entertaining series based on Denver’s reckless approach to the playoffs. After a literal year-plus of hype on the Battle of LA, LeBron has to be salivating at his current opportunity to make yet another Finals trip.
Michael Rosenberg: Lakers over Nuggets in seven
So tempting to pick the Nuggets, who have some real advantages in this series. It will be interesting to see how Lakers coach Frank Vogel tries to match up with Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr.—and whether Anthony Davis's defensive responsibilities will affect his offense. The Lakers have two great players but is not a truly great team; Davis and LeBron James cover most of the flaws. But I just can’t shake two thoughts: James is so clearly the best player remaining, and the Nuggets came within a hair of losing to the Jazz in the first round and almost lost to the Clippers in five games. Nothing would surprise me in the bubble, but when in doubt, go with LeBron.
Jeremy Woo: Nuggets over Lakers in seven
I realize I picked against the Lakers in the previous round, and that already looks fairly stupid, but I would not write off Denver, no matter how poorly you think it matches up on paper. The Nuggets are under zero pressure, they’re playing freely and are a pain in the a-- to play against. If they can hold the line defensively, I think this will go seven with a real chance of the scales tipping. I’m still worried about the Lakers’ supporting cast making shots, and they haven’t been in many high-pressure situations yet in these playoffs. Denver is much less predictable to defend than Houston, and nobody has been able to properly guard the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll yet. There’s a chance this will gradually expose the Lakers’ defensive habits, and while I don’t see L.A. going down easily, this is a much closer matchup than I suspect a lot of people will predict. LeBron and Davis are the two best players in the series, but Murray and Jokic in tandem create a massive challenge.
Melissa Rohlin: Lakers over Nuggets in five
The Lakers had hit their stride before the season was suspended in March. After a four-month layoff, no one knew how they'd return. Would 35-year-old LeBron James be able to find his rhythm again? Would the team's chemistry suffer? James answered those questions after the Lakers won their second-straight series in five games last Saturday. They've gotten even better. And even closer. While the Nuggets have undoubtedly shown impressive tenacity and grit to overcome two 3-1 series deficits, they're going to be overwhelmed by a Lakers team with both James and Anthony Davis playing at the top of their games and a supporting cast led by Rajon Rondo who has also stepped up.
Mark Bechtel: Lakers over Nuggets in seven
Sure, it’s not the Battle of L.A., but this should be fun. The Lakers go from facing a team of 5' 7" guys to trying to figure out how to stop a 7-foot point guard. What makes Nikola Jokic so tricky, obviously, is that he can do just about everything. If you come at him with a big, he’ll lurk on the perimeter and pick-and-pop you to death. Go little and he can abuse them in the post. Try something in between and he can still see everything fine, which makes him a passing threat. The Lakers, though, have sizable options in Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Davis. LeBron is savvy enough to disrupt the Nuggets’ attack. Vogel is a smart defensive coach. In four regular-season matchups (three of which were L.A. wins), Jokic averaged just 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists. It won’t be easy, and they won’t stop Jokic, but the Lakers will do just enough to beat him.
Robin Lundberg: Lakers over Nuggets in five
Credit the Nuggets for the run they've had thus far. To come back from 3–1 twice in the same postseason is certainly something. And both Jokic and Murray have had coming-out parties as stars in the postseason. However, they are now running into a different beast. The Lakers are equipped to deal with Jokic given the presence of Anthony Davis, and I also expect to see LeBron James on him some. As for Murray, L.A. has already dealt with the likes of Damian Lillard and James Harden. On the other side of the ball, I am not sure the Nuggets are on the level defensively to deal with AD and especially LeBron. When locked in, the Lakers look like the best team in the league.
Elizabeth Swinton: Lakers over Nuggets in Five
As much as I'm compelled to say "Nuggets over Lakers in Seven," Denver will face a new challenge in Los Angeles' size. Anthony Davis will be a formidable defender against the red-hot Nikola Jokic, while the team as a whole has been clicking defensively. The Nuggets had three close losses to the Lakers in the regular season, including a 128-104 victory, but LeBron James and Davis may get the nod as top duo over Jamal Murray and Jokic. Denver can give itself a chance if its supporting cast steps up as it did against the Clippers.
Michael Shapiro: Lakers over Nuggets in six
Jokic and Murray's sheer brilliance should make this series somewhat competitive, but I'm already getting flashbacks to previous pre-Finals series involving James. Denver could very well be the next Toronto or Atlanta in James's Reign of Terror, providing little resistance at the rim as another LeBron team cruises to the Finals. Davis should succeed in pulling Jokic away from the rim. Gary Harris, Torrey Craig and (familiar face) Paul Millsap will have their hands full dealing with the greatest player of their era. After a brief hiatus, James is on the fast track to the Finals.
Ben Pickman: Lakers over Nuggets in six
The Nuggets deserve a ton of credit for the postseason run that they’ve had. They’ve now become the first team in league history to come back from consecutive 3–1 series deficits to advance. However, it seems as if it’s only a matter of time until Denver’s miraculous run ends. Murray could present a matchup problem for the Lakers, who have received inconsistent guard play throughout the regular season, seeding games and postseason. Jokic will also surely be a problem, though Davis and the rest of L.A.’s bigs have as a good of a chance to guard the Serbian star as anyone. Denver will also throw a number of bodies at James—expect Torrey Craig, Gary Harris and Jerami Grant to get some early cracks. Still, James will be the best player in the Western Conference finals, and a well-rested Lakers team, led by James and Davis, will overpower Denver.