Basketball fans around the globe get ready for game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
The stage is set for an exhilarating Western Conference Finals matchup between the No. 7 seed Los Angeles Lakers and the No. 1 Denver Nuggets, with Game 1 set to take place at Ball Arena on Tuesday. Both teams enter the series with high stakes, a compelling narrative, and a high level of play, promising an exciting showdown.
The Nuggets have established themselves as the team to beat in the Western Conference throughout the season, showcasing their consistency and skill. On the other hand, the Lakers have been on an impressive run since the All-Star break, gaining momentum and proving their championship pedigree. The clash between these two teams in a bubble rematch is bound to provide thrilling basketball at a Mile High level.
Jokic vs AD
In previous matchups, the Lakers had the luxury of deploying Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee to contain Jokic while Anthony Davis roamed the floor. They managed to somewhat limit Jokic to 21.8 points on 53.2% shooting, along with 7.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. However, this time around, Davis will be the primary option to defend Jokic, although the Lakers won’t solely rely on him. The Warriors had success in their games against the Nuggets by running high pick-and-rolls to draw Davis up toward Stephen Curry, creating a 4-on-3 advantage. Denver’s pick-and-rolls are set a bit closer to the basket, allowing Davis to stay back a bit more.
Nevertheless, he will face the challenge of guarding Jokic, who possesses a wide array of offensive skills, including floaters and excellent passing on short rolls. Davis will also need to be mindful of thwarting Jamal Murray’s drives. When Jokic pops out for three-pointers, Davis must hustle to contest the shot without falling for pump fakes. The Lakers may resort to double-teaming Jokic at times, although it can be risky given his exceptional passing ability as a 7-foot wizard.
Thankfully, the Lakers no longer rely solely on Davis to score 25+ points to win games. The team’s offensive approach has evolved, and they have multiple contributors who can step up. However, Davis will still have a significant task ahead of him defensively.
While Davis can certainly score against Jokic, the Nuggets have Aaron Gordon (6’8, 250) who can provide tough defense against both Davis and LeBron James. The Lakers will need to make Jokic work on the defensive end by utilizing corner pin-downs, employing multiple-screen sets, and by having LeBron and their other ball handlers relentlessly attack him.
Does Lebron Have Enough in the Tank?
LeBron James has insisted that he did not pick his spots in the games against the Warriors and that he was exhausted after each game. Despite his fatigue, Game 6 marked LeBron’s first 30-point playoff game since the 2020 Finals. His scoring, efficiency, and aggression have dipped since his foot injury. He has been spending more time off-ball, trusting his teammates to create opportunities while still orchestrating the offense from a distance.
If Anthony Davis is somewhat limited due to his defensive responsibilities, and if the Lakers’ guards are not performing at their best, LeBron will need to tap into that Game 6 energy. It won’t be an easy task, even with his unwavering commitment. The Nuggets have multiple defenders they can throw at LeBron, including Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green.
The Nuggets will use their size, athleticism, and length to discourage LeBron from driving into the paint. They are willing to let him take perimeter shots, especially considering his shooting percentage from beyond the arc has been 26% in the playoffs.
On the defensive end, it is likely that LeBron will match up against Gordon and allow him to shoot from the perimeter. He will also provide help defense against Nikola Jokic and contribute on the glass. LeBron has been averaging 10 rebounds per game in the playoffs, showcasing his versatility and impact on both ends of the court.
Darvin Ham’s Rotation
Both the Lakers and Nuggets enter the series relatively healthy, with the exception of Murray’s questionable status for Game 1 due to an illness. Mo Bamba will be sidelined for the Lakers due to an ankle injury, while LeBron James is managing a torn foot tendon but is expected to play.
Coach Ham may consider starting Vanderbilt over Schroder for added length and versatility in defending Murray, Gordon, or Porter. However, he can always bring Schroder off the bench later in the game if needed.
Throughout the playoffs, Ham has not made significant changes to the rotation. The top eight players in the current rotation include LeBron, Anthony Davis, DLo, Reaves, Hachimura, Vanderbilt, Schroder, and Walker. Walker has shown his defensive prowess in the second round, contributing positively to the team.
Managing the minutes when Davis is off the court will be crucial for the Lakers. If it’s a normal rest period, they can get by with a combination of LeBron, Rui, and Wenyen Gabriel playing at the center position. However, if Davis encounters foul trouble, the Lakers lack good options to match up against Jokic. In such a case, it remains to be seen if LeBron is up to the challenge. While it may seem unlikely, the possibility of utilizing Tristan Thompson as a last resort cannot be entirely ruled out.