The case for the Nuggets over LeBron James, Lakers - Sports Illustrated

Can the Nuggets Upset the Lakers In the Western Conference Finals?

Do Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Co. have what it takes to take down LeBron and the Lakers? The Crossover makes the case.
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The Nuggets have tried to tell us they’re real contenders for each of the last two seasons, even if the public wasn’t willing to listen.

Jamal Murray appeared offended at the consideration that Denver wasn’t a true Finals threat, and Mike Malone has expected nothing but superstar production and effort from Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets were treated as an enjoyable secondary story, a pleasant surprise after a few dormant years. Those expectations are now shattered, and the Finals are within reach. So does Jokic and Co. have what it takes to dethrone LeBron and the Lakers? Let’s make the case.

Denver’s regular-season metrics paint the picture of a true contender, belying any Cinderella story narrative. The Nuggets ranked No. 5 in offense and No. 11 in defense in the regular season, and they held the third-best record in the West for much of 2019-20. Denver is plus-10 points per 100 possessions in crunch time, thriving behind Jokic’s 51% shooting in clutch situations. The Serbian behemoth is one of the NBA’s best late-game options, a true rarity in the modern NBA. Allow the Nuggets to hang around late at your peril.

It’s not the most elaborate plan for the Nuggets to topple the Lakers, at least on the offensive end. Denver will rely on a heavy diet on Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, and Jokic will get plenty of possessions initiating the offense either on the block or near the foul line. The formula is partially born out of necessity. Denver’s secondary scorers aren’t exactly playmakers. Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris and Torrey Craig are more comfortable as spot-up shooters, and while Jerami Grant is versatile for his size, he’s more of a cutter and shooter than ball-handler. Perhaps Paul Millsap will help keep Denver’s engine running after a mini-revival against the Clippers. But largely, it will be a two-man show.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing by any stretch for Malone’s team. Jokic averaged 1.06 points per post-up in 2019-20 (second among all players with at least 100 attempts) and only six players scored more points as a big man in pick-and-roll situations. Denver’s center presents an almost-unsolvable problem for defenses, especially as he increases his three-point attempts in the playoffs. Place a lumbering big on Jokic, and he’ll rain triples. Downsize, and you’re inviting a dangerous post up. Jokic is perhaps the greatest passing big ever, and his scoring touch is more impressive by the season. He’ll need to feast against an admittedly-stout Lakers defense in order to advance to the Finals.

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We should certainly take a moment to recognize Jokic’s co-star, who has not-so-quietly been on an extended inferno throughout the postseason. Murray’s playoffs have been a delight to watch, and not just because of his elite shot-making and flair for the dramatic. Murray has been the voice of the Nuggets throughout the season, nearly defiant in his belief that Denver was the best team in the West. That confidence carries over to his play, and in turn, to his team. The collective belief across the organization can be directly traced back to its franchise point guard.

The Western Conference finals could provide an advantageous matchup for Murray. Los Angeles’ guard rotation isn’t exactly intimidating, with Avery Bradley‘s decision to opt out potentially looming large in the coming weeks. Rajon Rondo is as smart as any guard in the league, and Alex Caruso showed impressive restraint guarding James Harden. Danny Green is likely Los Angeles’ best perimeter defender. Yet all three players are more solid than spectacular. Murray should have far more isolation opportunities than Harden, largely thanks to having Jokic as a trap breaker instead of Russell Westbrook. Few defenders can truly stop Murray one-on-one. It’s unclear whether any of them reside on the Lakers’ roster.

It would be surprising not to see an effective Denver offense, even considering the collective length and intelligence of its opponent. Jokic is a truly generational big, and Murray’s arrival as a leading man is no joke. The last two rounds are anything but a mirage. But the Nuggets could still fall short even if their top options thrive. The Lakers’ offense found its rhythm in the second round, and Denver’s personnel may struggle to keep up. An uphill battle awaits against LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Malone’s rotation in the series is likely to be dictated by Frank Vogel’s decision making. The Nuggets can’t truly downsize given the fact that their best player is, well, a mountain of a man, but there will be tweaks depending on how Vogel uses his roster. It’s likely Denver prefers Vogel to lean heavily on his bigs, eschewing the small-ball units deployed to beat the Rockets. Starting Anthony Davis at the four and JaVale McGee at the five allows Jokic to cover a true big man, and it leaves both Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant in the game. Nobody can really match the Lakers’ size, but Denver can come close. Malone will invite a battle of the bigs, even if it hampers Jokic to a degree on the offensive end.

Things get harder when the Lakers put Davis at his rightful position. Playing Anthony Davis at center inserts Caruso, Rondo Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris into the game, likely forcing Malone to play Porter Jr. or Torrey Craig. Perhaps Malone stays stubborn and plays Millsap, Jokic and Grant against Los Angeles’ pseudo-small-ball look, though that could be inviting trouble (and saddening flashbacks for Milsap). There are no perfect options at play. Stay big and James will blow past defenders en route to the basket. Play Porter Jr. or the slimmer Craig, and The King will enter the post and control the chessboard. It’s hard to find solutions against James, especially with shaky personnel. Malone will likely encounter the same problem as many of his playoff predecessors as James racks up the points.

James and Davis must remain the leading focus for Denver, even at the expense of allowing open jumpers. The Rockets boasted about their ability to form a wall following Game 1, but after Danuel House–and Houston’s spirit–left the bubble, Mike D’Antoni’s team became increasingly reluctant to protect the rim. James feasted in isolation with little help, and Davis rollicked the rim with no real deterrent. Denver has to learn from Houston’s mistakes. If Kuzma, Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope swing the series, so be it. Limiting James and Davis’ looks at the rim remains priority No. 1.

We shouldn’t dance around Denver’s underdog status in this series. The Lakers are the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, armed with the best player of his generation and a second All-NBA talent. James is the tide that lifts all boats, and his ability to mine quality performances from ordinary players remains unparalleled. Anything short of a championship will be a surprise for James and Co. with less than a month left in the bubble.

Yet if there’s any team that shouldn’t be discounted, it’s the Nuggets. Their growth over the last three years has bred an uncommon toughness, one built through small victories and the constant demanding of excellence. Malone has molded a pudgy, pass-first center into a true superstar. Murray is now among the league’s top clutch guards after a shaky 2019 playoffs. The Nuggets may be underdogs entering Friday night, but there's little doubting their confidence ahead of another potential playoff upset.