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Lakers vs. Nuggets: What scouts expect in Western Conference finals

Lakers forward Anthony Davis raises both arms above Nuggets center Nikola Jokic while defending against a possible pass.
Forward Anthony Davis (3) and the Lakers will have to decide how to defend two-time MVP Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets in the Western Conference finals, which start Tuesday in Denver. NBA insiders wonder if Davis will draw the assignment one on one or if the Lakers will send help.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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It’s the Hollywood script with the third-act twist nobody saw coming.

For the first time since 2014, the Golden State Warriors reached the postseason but not the NBA Finals. And it was the Lakers, of all teams — the same Lakers who started this season 2-10 — who dethroned the Warriors’ streak of 19 consecutive playoff series victories against Western Conference opponents.

The Lakers’ series-clinching win in Game 6 last Friday sets up a Western Conference finals against top-seeded Denver, a rematch of 2020, that begins Tuesday in Denver.

Though the rosters, and even the coaching staffs in the case of the Lakers, have almost entirely flipped since their last postseason meeting, league insiders interviewed by The Los Angeles Times agree that the series will again hinge on the starring duos who have remained: The Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis and Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

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Two scouts, a front-office executive involved in scouting, and a coach were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor in scouting the conference finals.

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Scout No. 1

I actually think that Denver is a better matchup for the Lakers compared to the previous two they’ve had in Memphis and Golden State. The Lakers being a bigger and older team — older in a certain sense — struggle with those dynamic, shifty or explosive guards. I actually think they will fare well against everyone else besides Jokic. The Lakers tend to be pretty good when they can hone in on one thing specifically.

For Denver, in a perfect world, Jokic scores 30, [has] eight to 10 assists, 10 to 12 rebounds, and he just affects the game in three huge areas. If you relegate him to one I think you have a good chance. He had 53 against Phoenix and they lost. … I think they’ll try a bunch of different things against Jokic, but my scouting mind would tell me they allow him to score 40 or 50. No. 1, it tires him out. No. 2, it limits everyone else [on Denver] and then you’re asking him to score that much four games in a row, which plays on his conditioning, plays on their pace and the games every other day, so you’re playing into those factors and the Lakers might have the edge in that.

The Lakers discuss their upcoming conference finals series vs. No. 1 Denver and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. ‘We’re going in with the utmost respect.’

May 13, 2023

The Nuggets hold an edge in their motivation. They seem very confident and they have a lot of big bodies to throw at LeBron, as far as [Aaron] Gordon, and they can do some different things. I just think the Lakers may run into some trouble if they’re relying on [Austin] Reaves and Lonnie Walker [IV]. The Lakers need someone else every game. I trust Dennis Schroder, but if I had to lean on trusting D’Angelo Russell, Reaves or having another huge game by [Rui] Hachimura, I don’t know about that. I think Denver’s depth does help them, that they have players who have been pretty consistent all year.

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Coach

The Lakers seem to have a little bit of that championship magic a little bit where they’re getting the random Russell game, they get the Hachimura game, they get the Lonnie Walker game. They get stuff like that where it’s these guys in big moments they’re getting role players to step up and so they’ve survived those games where LeBron hasn’t been as effective.

I’m just really interested how they cover Jokic from a Lakers perspective. You have someone in AD that I think can potentially guard him one on one and he’s one of the few guys that can but then AD is out of help-side — does this become more of a Jarred Vanderbilt series? Because you’re going to need someone off the ball roaming off those drives if AD’s sole focus is Jokic. Will they send extra bodies if they have AD as a secondary defender [on Jokic]? If anyone else besides AD is matched up on Jokic, how are they coming — top side, baseline side, on the dribble, on the catch?

Denver’s been the most steady team this whole playoffs and so I do think that there has to be, not junking it up, but [Lakers coach Darvin] Ham and that staff are going to have to be a little creative and they have the personnel to do that. But I’m interested in how they kill the head of the snake as much as possible.

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Front-office executive

Aaron Gordon can guard LeBron to some degree, as much as anyone can. KCP [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] can guard whoever they decide to guard whoever they decide to put as their No. 1 on the perimeter be it Austin Reaves or D’Angelo Russell, and Michael Porter Jr. has improved defensively; they don’t have to hide him as much, which allows them to put Jamal wherever they really want to conserve some energy. But AD has given them issues and if the Lakers are starting AD at the center does that mean the Nuggets try to let Jokic be the rover? Do they put Jokic on AD directly? I think that’s kind of the big question.

AD has not had the same success guarding Jokic. (Note: When guarded by Davis on 119 possessions during the regular season, Jokic made 16 of his 25 shots — including 15 of his 18 inside the three-point arc — with only three turnovers.) With the Lakers, it’s more how do we stop what has become just this offense rolling downhill at a high level these last few games. How do we limit the amount of transition, limit Jokic’s damage, maybe just turn him into a scorer is something I’ve thought about for them. Let him go one on one and as long as AD’s not in foul trouble we’ll live if he ends up with 40 points if he only has four assists. It’s when he’s got 25 to 30 points and 10 to 15 assists and everyone’s eating is where they’re really, really scary.

Lakers forward LeBron James tries to power his way to the basket between Nuggets guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic provides help defense for teammate Jamal Murray against Lakers forward LeBron James during the 2020 playoffs.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

My guess is they’ll start Vanderbilt on Murray, and it’ll be a six-minute-a-half starter just to kind of not let Jamal get going. But if they struggle at all it’s going to be a super short leash because the Nuggets can score and if [the Lakers] are leaving a zero out there offensively. … Vanderbilt’s been on a roller coaster for them from chipping in 20 points and being a defensive stopper to basically being played off the floor at times. I think you’re just gauging what Vanderbilt you’re getting and what can you survive.

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Denver is trying to survive their bench minutes. The Lakers have had games where they’ve dominated from the bench. If they win this series, there’s probably one or two games where the bench swings it.

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Scout No. 2

If AD can stay healthy, I think it’s the Lakers in seven. It’s going to be a great series.

Nobody can stop Jokic, but AD probably has the best chance of many in the league to at least affect his game a little bit. ... If you can negate him a little bit then I think you’re starting to rely on other guys, Jamal Murray, who’s really good but maybe not good enough to help win a playoff series in the Western Conference finals. You’re relying on some guys to do things that you’re just not going to get out of them.

I think it’s just harder for Denver to neutralize the Lakers’ two biggest threats. I don’t know what [coach] Michael Malone’s going to do other than hope that Jokic is able to play at the level he’s capable of playing and still make that offense tick with AD guarding him.

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