2020 NBA Playoffs preview: Western Conference Finals

Photo from Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The battle of Los Angeles will have to wait at least a year, as the Denver Nuggets knocked out the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the second round. The much-anticipated series will not happen in the bubble, but is the series we’re left with even more intriguing? Can the Nuggets continue their magical run against the LA Lakers? Here is my preview of the Western Conference finals.

How we got here

For the Los Angeles Lakers, the road has been rather easy. They won a five-game series against the Portland Trail Blazers, followed by a five-game series against the Houston Rockets. Both teams presented similar challenges: great shooting, small ball, and an inability to contain the two superstars of the Lakers. The Lakers dropped the first game against both opponents, then figured out the other team and defensively controlled the rest of the series. Overall, the Lakers have yet to be challenged, and they have shown why they are the best team in the West.

I don’t think it can be overstated how amazing this Nuggets run is. Throughout the decades-long history of the NBA, there had been only 11 instances of a team coming back from 3-1 down in a series. Three weeks ago, the Nuggets became the 12th, and last Sunday they became the 13th. They didn’t just come back from 3-1, they beat the team that was heavily favored to win the championship; the pick of all the pundits. They knocked out Kawhi Leonard, the consensus best player in the world coming off of a Finals MVP. They did all this while overcoming double-digit deficits in three straight elimination games. Denver has had an absolutely magical run to this point. Nikola Jokic has built upon his great first playoff run, and is now widely accepted to be the best center in the game. Jamal Murray has become a bona fide star, with two 50-point games and two 40-point games, one of which came in a Game 7. If the Nuggets lose every game this series by 30 points, their run will still be remembered as historic and special. However, I don’t think that will be the case.

Matchup Preview

Unlike the previous series these teams have had that wore down into defensive matchups as they went on, I believe that this series will be a shootout. The Nuggets have no answer for LeBron James, and he will not be passive attacking mismatches like Paul George and Kawhi were. He is the exploitable matchup for the Lakers, and he is the best player in the world. I think that Anthony Davis will be less effective than he has been in the first two rounds. Nikola Jokic is a big body that is tough to get around, which should turn Davis into a perimeter shooter, a role that transforms him into an average offensive player. The Lakers role players have shot better as the playoffs have gone on, and I expect LeBron to score and find open shooters at will against the Nuggets.

For Denver, everything revolves around Murray and Jokic. The Lakers have expressed interest in playing their centers against Jokic, which should last about 15 minutes before Jokic causes them to foul out. Davis will primarily be on Jokic, and I think he will slow him down, but Jokic just finds the open man when he doesn’t have the mismatch. As for Murray, this series will be a significantly better matchup than the Los Angeles Clippers were. The Lakers have pretty good perimeter defenders, such as Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo, but so did the Utah Jazz, and he averaged over 30 points per game. I think that Murray, along with shooters Jokic is able to find, will be very hard for the Lakers to slow down.

On paper, this matchup looks pretty good for the Nuggets. They will be able to turn this series into a shootout between their fantastic offense vs. a 35-year-old and average shooters. Unfortunately, the 35-year-old is LeBron James, and he has done this so many times. I don’t believe in betting against the king, and though the Nuggets have good matchups and as much grit as any team in history, LeBron always rises above. I think this series will resemble the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, where a gritty Boston Celtics team fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games.

Prediction

The Lakers in seven games.

Betting Angles

Series to go seven games: This selection is +350, the least likely series length according to the books. The Nuggets have played in four series the last two years, every single one has gone to seven games. I see this as a very even series that should be extremely hard fought. This is great value for this series length.

Anthony Davis under in points: Jokic is a big body that is pretty hard to get past at the rim, so I believe that Davis will turn into a jump-shooter in this series. I’ve always said that Davis becomes a very average offensive player when he relies on these types of shots, as he is apt to do when he can’t get to the rim easily. If he isn’t being a force at the rim, LeBron will have a short leash with him because this is the conference finals. I think Davis will be far less effective than he has been thus far in the playoffs.  

LeBron James over in points: The Nuggets don’t have defensive answers for him, and with Davis likely being limited, he will have to carry the offensive load. As he does often late in the playoffs, LeBron will take over and be a one-man wrecking crew against the inferior Nuggets wing defense. I think he has a stat line that will resemble his days in Cleveland in the later years.

Jamal Murray over in points: The Los Angeles Clippers were able to slow Murray down a bit by throwing big, high-level defenders at him all series long. They had Kawhi, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley hounding him all series long. The Lakers do not have answers like this. They may end up throwing LeBron at him, along with the likes of Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso, and I think Murray will be able to have his way with any of these players. He averaged 31.6 points per game in the first round, then 22.6 in the second round. I would bet that he is much closer to his first-round averages in this series.

Michael Porter Jr. over in points/rebounds: Because of the top-heavy nature of the Lakers, the Nuggets should be able to get away with playing Porter bigger minutes and hiding him on defense. Porter will be able to provide help on offense, spreading the floor as a shooter and helping on the boards. MPJ has produced any time he gets minutes, and I believe he will be afforded heavy minutes in this series.

Over in total points: The line for the first game is 210. Both teams have averaged fewer points as the playoffs have gone on, but that was due to their matchups. The Lakers were able to clamp down on their opponents as they figured them out, while the Nuggets had to be better on defense to stop getting blown out. In this matchup, neither team has good defensive answers for the other, and I think they will have to score in bunches to keep up. LeBron will have his way, while the Jokic-Murray two-man game has been unstoppable. These games should be relatively high-scoring.

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