ON SATURDAY, the Denver Nuggets will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.
A lot has changed since these two teams last played for a spot in the Finals, starting with the 2019-2020 season having to restart in the NBA Bubble at the Walt Disney World due to the coronavirus pandemic.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers cruised through the Portland Tired Blazers and Houston Oompa Loompas in the first two rounds of the playoffs, despite losing both opening matches.
As for the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Co. they had to make history as the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in back-to-back series against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers to reach the conference finals.
This is the seventh time Denver and Los Angeles are meeting in the postseason, with the latter winning the first six matchups. But LA fans be warned: If there's a team that can break such streak and rewrite record books, it has to be coach Mike Malone and his boys.
First, we have to understand how the Nuggets got to this point, and why their reputation as comeback kids hardly matter against the Lakers:
Why they were down 3-1 (Denver Game 3, Game 4 vs Utah and LA analysis)
As much as Denver deserves credit for digging themselves out of a hole, the relatively young team did excavate that hole for themselves in the first place.
In their respective Games 3 and 4 against the Jazz and Clippers, they consistently had the worse effective field goal percentage (threes having more worth than twos). In three of those matches, the opposing team made “better” shots by a 10-point margin.
In Game 4 against Utah and Game 3 against LA, both of which went down the wire, Denver had the better turnover and offensive rebound percentage, but fell short and ran out of steam, respectively.
How to pull off a comeback (Denver Game 5, Game 6, Game 7 analysis)
Against Utah, the Nuggets won all third and fourth quarters of Games 5 and 6. Denver finally found their scoring groove, based on the double-digit difference in offensive rating. They almost gave it all up in an ugly Game 7, where the Nuggets had a mere 30 points in the entire second half. Then Jokic’s go-ahead hook shoot happened…
Versus the Clippers, pretty much the same thing happened in the second halves of each do-or-die game — only Denver got a little help from LA. The Nuggets played like a cornered and wounded animal in the fourth quarters of Game 5 and 6, exploding for 38 and 34 points, respectively. The Clippers, on the other hand, did the opposite.
In Game 7, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George choked for a combined 25 markers on 10 out of 38 shooting, as the Clippers extend their conference-finals drought to 50 years. Meanwhile, Murray finally had his huge game in the series with 40 points on 58 percent shooting, while Jokic triple-doubled for 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 13 assists.
Denver actually lost in terms of turnover and offensive rebounding percentage against LA, but were carried by their hot shooting and free throw accuracy. Murray (27.1 ppg, 6.4 apg, 5 rpg), despite his early struggles, came up big when it mattered the most, just like what Jokic (25.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 6 apg) has been doing all-series long.
Who else? (Denver's supporting cast)
The Nuggets may not have a microwave scorer like Jordan Clarkson off the bench, or Sixth Man of the Year awardees such as Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, but Coach Malone has a deep rotation to work with even without the injured Will Barton.
Outside Jokic and Murray, the following players need to keep overachieving for Denver to go further:
Michael Porter, Jr.
The red-shirt rookie has emerged as a solid third offensive option for Denver. Save for his defense, Porter has been valuable as a rangy shot creator (11.1 ppg, 1.8 3pt) and power rebounder (6.9 rpg, 2nd on team). Depending on his performance, he could go from X-factor to budding star.
The veteran forward, who was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder last summer, has provided stability and defensive versatility in the Nuggets’ starting lineup. Grant (10.1 ppg, 1.6 3pt, 1 bpg) knows his role, and that’s doing things that don’t show up in the boxscore.
After a career 2017-18 season, the defensive guard has seen his play decline due to injuries. Harris showed signs of life against the Clippers, though, scoring in double figures (12.6 ppg) in five of the last six games. Denver is simply a better team when he’s a two-way player.
What this means against the Lakers
As much as we would like to see a Joker vs. Brow head-to-head all-game long, the two are more likely to go one-on-one in certain situations. Expect coach Frank Vogel to throw JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard to Jokic, after both hardly suited up against the Houston Rockets.
Malone, for his part, can go with Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, and even Grant to try and stop Davis (27.6 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.1 spg, 1.5 bpg).
The question, “Who guards LeBron (26.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 8.8 apg, 1.6 spg, 1.1 bpg)?”, also applies to Murray. Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, and Alex Caruso will each have a crack at shadowing the Blue Arrow, after they hounded Damian Lillard and James Harden in the previous series.
As for James, Grant, Harris, Millsap, and Torrey Craig will take turns guarding the 35-year-old point forward. The King will probably have his way in every matchup, which is why the key for Nuggets defenders is to disrupt his playmaking by making him work hard for each rebound and assist. LeBron has more postseason games where he shot poorly from deep, so they must force him to score from those tough spots.
Denver has yet to face a forward combo of Davis and James’ caliber in these playoffs, the same way Los Angeles has never met a big man that is the focal point of the offense like Jokic. Unlike the chess match between Nick Nurse and Brad Stevens, Vogel and Malone’s coaching battle will be a matter of who will be able to motivate their superstars and young guys, and get the most out of them in what should be an entertaining series.
Who will win between the comeback kings and comeback breakers?