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    Lakers vs. Nuggets: Western Conference Finals feature same big names as 2020, but some notable differences

    The Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets will meet in the Western Conference finals on Tuesday, and if you’re feeling a bit of deja vu, that’s because these two teams met in the conference finals back in 2020. When the NBA decided to resume its halted season due to the COVID pandemic in Orlando, the Nuggets and Lakers battled it out in five games where L.A. would go on to win the series and eventually beat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. 

    Funny enough, the Eastern Conference Finals is also a rematch of the 2020 bubble between the Heat and Celtics, so there’s some real Groundhog Day stuff happening right now in the NBA. But while it’s natural to compare the two meetings in trying to draw conclusions about what we’re about to see, it’s pretty clear that the differences outweigh the similarities in this upcoming series.

    For starters, only a handful of players remain the same on both sides. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only two holdovers from the Lakers’ 2020 championship team, while Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. where the only ones around for the previous postseason meeting between Denver and L.A.

    Roster construction is the most obvious difference between now and the 2020 Western Conference Finals, but there’s quite a few important ones that could shape this series. With that in mind, as we get ready for the Lakers and Nuggets to face off once again, let’s break down five of the top similarities and differences between the bubble matchup and what we’re about to witness in the 2023 Western Conference Finals. 

    1. Davis should dominate like he did in 2020

    The most tantalizing matchup in this series will be between Davis and Jokic. In 2020, Davis completely dominated the Nuggets, who didn’t have an adequate answer in trying to stop him. With limited options in the frontcourt, Davis averaged a team-high 31.2 points and 6.2 rebounds over the five games, while shooting 54.3% from the field. Oh, and he also drained this game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 2 of that series to give the Lakers a commanding 2-0 lead.

    Had Davis not hit that 3-pointer, the Nuggets would’ve tied the series up at one game apiece, and we may have gotten a different outcome than the one we got, which was L.A. steamrolling Denver. 

    The bad news for the Nuggets is that they should run into the same problem in trying to contain A.D. again. With Aaron Gordon likely being tasked with guarding LeBron James all series, Denver doesn’t have another high-quality forward or center to keep Davis from getting whatever he wants. As much as Jokic will try to make life difficult on Davis, he simply isn’t a good enough defender to make that much of an impact. 

    If the Nuggets try to send help defense at Davis, he’s a high-IQ passer and will find the open man either on a backdoor cut to the rim or dish it back out to the perimeter. The Lakers don’t have the perimeter shooters that they did in 2020, so Denver may decide to leave someone like Jarred Vanderbilt or Dennis Schroder open to apply more pressure on Davis.

    Bottom line is, Denver doesn’t have the personnel to match up with Davis, which was the same issue they had in 2020. So the best they can hope for is limiting everyone else and forcing A.D. to beat them. If that doesn’t work, then the Nuggets could be in trouble. 

    2. Lakers don’t have as many bodies to throw at Jokic

    One of the reasons L.A. succeeded in 2020 against Denver was because they had other guys who could get physical enough with Jokic and make him uncomfortable. Between Davis, Dwight Howard and even JaVale McGee, the Lakers had several guys to wear Jokic down over the course of the series. That same tactic might not work this time around, because outside of Davis, the Lakers don’t really have the luxury of extra bigs who they can afford to take over defending Jokic if A.D. gets in foul trouble.

    The physicality that Jokic plays with can tire guys out, and when that happens to Davis, Lakers coach Darvin Ham is going to need to figure out who he can rely upon to fill that void when A.D. needs a rest. This may be where we see some spot minutes from Tristan Thompson, who the team signed just ahead of the postseason likely for a situation like this. Thompson won’t be able to stop Jokic, but he’s a fresh body L.A. can throw at Jokic for the objective of getting Davis some rest. Mo Bamba is another option, though he will likely get bullied in the paint by Jokic. 

    The Lakers could try and go smaller with Vanderbilt, but his lack of being an offensive threat won’t bode well for L.A. on the other end of the floor. There really isn’t a surefire option here for the Lakers this time around, and if they aren’t able to figure out who else can guard Jokic aside from Davis, then the Nuggets will have the upper hand in this series.

    3. Nuggets upgrade to guard LeBron

    One of the underrated aspects about Denver’s success in the playoffs so far has been Gordon’s defense. He contained Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round, limited Kevin Durant from going supernova in the conference semifinals, and now he’ll have his toughest test yet in trying to check LeBron James. In 2020, that role of defending James was filled by Jerami Grant, another capable defender, but too small to really make an impact. Though Grant and Gordon are the same height, Gordon is far stronger than Grant making him an ideal person to guard LeBron. 

    Gordon’s athleticism should also help him in this battle, especially as LeBron tries to get downhill. But while Gordon is equipped to guard LeBron, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. The Lakers are going to set so many screens to try and get Gordon off LeBron, and try to get Jokic thrown into switches, giving LeBron a green light toward the rim. This may become the biggest key in the series, because we already know Davis is likely going to feast with Jokic guarding him. So if Gordon can keep LeBron in check or at least turn him into a facilitator more than a scorer, then that’s a plus for Denver. 

    4. A repeat of bubble Murray

    The Orlando bubble gave rise to some truly elite performances, and Murray was at the center of a few of them. It’s been the crowning jewel of Murray’s career thus far, which included two 50-point outings in the first round against the Utah Jazz, and a 40-piece against the Clippers in the conference semifinals. While he wasn’t scoring in ridiculous bunches against the Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference Finals, he still averaged 25 points, 7.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds on 51.8% from the field. It was a supremely efficient series from Murray, who got pretty much whatever he wanted against an L.A. defense that, despite having elite defender Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, still managed to torch them over the five-game series. 

    Fortunately for Murray and the Nuggets, Caldwell-Pope is now in a Denver jersey, and Caruso is no longer donning the purple and gold. Instead, Murray will have guys like D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves and Schroder picking him up. Schroder can be a pest to Murray but he’s slightly undersized in that matchup, and only just got inserted into the starting lineup for Game 6 against the Warriors. The Nuggets may try to target Russell as he’s the weakest defender in the starting unit, something that the Lakers can’t afford to let happen. Murray figuring out how to take advantage of some of those mismatches is going to be key for the Nuggets in this series.

    5. Lakers depth is more productive than in 2020

    When the Lakers and Nuggets squared off in 2020, it was primarily LeBron and Davis doing all the damage. They got the necessary contributions out of role players like Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, but Denver just couldn’t handle the tandem of LeBron-Davis. Outside of those two, only Caldwell-Pope averaged double figures in points over the course of that series.

    Lakers scoring in 2020 Western Conference finals vs. Nuggets

    Anthony Davis


    LeBron James


    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope


    Kyle Kuzma


    Dwight Howard


    You could argue that the Lakers didn’t really need big performances from role players since L.A. handled Denver in five games, but it was clear that the Lakers’ gameplan was to let LeBron and Davis bulldoze over the Nuggets, and it worked too. 

    But while that likely wouldn’t work this time around against a Denver team that is much improved from 2020, the Lakers are also getting far more production out of role players in the postseason so far. The Lakers top five scorers in the playoffs are scoring in double figures, a jarring improvement from their 2020 title season. Even more impressive, two of those three scorers were brought over at the trade deadline, showing that the moves L.A. made on the trade market in February have made a positive impact in more ways that one.

    Lakers scoring in 2023 playoffs

    LeBron James


    Anthony Davis


    D’Angelo Russell


    Austin Reaves


    Rui Hachimura


    If that production continues from guys like Russell, Reaves and Hachimura, then the Lakers won’t have to rely as much on A.D. and LeBron to put up astronomical numbers to get them to the finish line against the Nuggets. 

    Although there are a few similarities in this matchup to the previous one from 2020, the stark differences show that these aren’t the same teams that met in the Orlando bubble three years ago. Those differences are going to be important factors over the course of this series, and it’s going to determine which team gets to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. 



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