Lakers vs. Nuggets isn’t the Western Conference Finals we were expecting. These are the lineup, matchup and strategic issues that will decide a winner.
The Western Conference Finals are here. It’s not the Battle for Los Angeles that many envisioned since last July, but instead, the Lakers taking on the Denver Nuggets for the right to represent their conference against the winner of Celtics vs. Heat. There are any number of factors that will contribute to who advances, but we want to focus on these four questions in particular.
I’d say that Murray has taken a mini-leap in the playoffs, but that’s not true. The leap has been fairly massive. Across 14 games, Murray is playing 39 minutes a night, averaging 27 points, 5 rebounds, and 6.4 assists while posting a 50-49-91 shooting line. He spent the significant majority of the last series being defended by three of the very best perimeter defenders in basketball (Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard) and, well, he did this.
(via Second Spectrum, qSQ is a measure of shot quality interpreted as expected eFG%, qSI is how much a played exceeded his expected eFG%)
The Murray-Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll proved damn near impossible for the Clippers to stop, with 150 possessions that including at least one such screen producing 164 points. The Lakers’ pick-and-roll defense was more solid during the regular season than that of their L.A. brethren and that has held true in the playoffs, though the differential is not that wide in either case.
The Lakers have a more reasonable answer for Jokic than did the Clippers in the form of Anthony Davis, but they might have worse options to go up against Murray. Avery Bradley spent the most time on him when the two teams played during the regular season, but he opted out of the restart. So, who gets the assignment? Danny Green or (more likely) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will presumably be on him to start games, while Alex Caruso and/or Rajon Rondo will spend some time in the matchup as well.
The way Murray is rolling, none seem like particularly appealing options. But that was also the case with Damian Lillard heading into the Blazers series, and with James Harden heading into the Rockets series. They held Lillard to 40 percent shooting and only 4 assists per game. Harden did quite a bit more damage than that, but the Lakers completely shut down everybody else on the roster.
Entering the playoffs it sure seemed like shutting down — or at least slowing down — Jokic would be opponents’ biggest concern against the Nuggets, but Murray’s play has made that, if not necessarily secondary, then at least less of a clear-cut number one goal. How LA chooses to deal with Denver’s star guard is just as important.
Can the Nuggets sustain their improved defense?
Denver got absolutely flambeed for a bubble-worst 121.7 points per 100 possessions in the seeding games. Through the first four games of their series against the Jazz, the Nuggets were even worse, allowing 131.1 points per 100 possessions. In 10 games since, they have allowed only 107.1 points per 100. That’s top-six regular-season defense.
The Lakers have struggled throughout pretty much the entire year to create offense in the half-court. According to Cleaning the Glass, they ranked just 19th in half-court points per play during the regular season, tied with the Pelicans and just ahead of the Timberwolves and Nets. They had the league’s second-best transition offense, though, and played in transition on the fifth-greatest share of their offensive possessions
That makes Denver’s fast-break defense incredibly important. Getting back to prevent LeBron James from creating whatever he wants is a top priority for every opponent, obviously, but stating it and actually doing it are far different things. The Nuggets figure to use some combination of Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig on James, with perhaps a dash of Paul Millsap thrown in here and there as well.
Millsap has… not fared well against LeBron in the past, so if they can avoid that matchup, they’ll probably want to do so. Grant is at a significant weight and strength disadvantage against LeBron (in fairness, so are 99 percent of humans), but his length should at least help make things slightly more difficult in half-court situations. Craig has the body type and mentality to handle the matchup but LeBron is much quicker, and Craig’s presence on the floor can undermine Denver’s ability to generate offense.
For Davis, Millsap, Jokic, and potentially Grant seem like the best options. Millsap probably has the best combination of size, strength, and agility to handle the matchup, but Michael Malone has also essentially had him splitting minutes with Michael Porter Jr. for the past 10 games or so. If Millsap is to be Davis’ primary matchup, that can’t really happen anymore. Porter’s ability to juice the offense will be important if Denver’s transition D doesn’t hold up, but he also has the potential to undermine the team’s defense himself. It’s a tricky balance Malone will have to figure strike.
Will the Lakers go back to their two-big lineup?
I’m actually not sure this is really a question. The Lakers will almost surely go back to their two-big lineup. They went small against the Rockets only when it became clear that both JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard had no place in that series. It worked, they won the series, and now they’ll return to their (or at least, Anthony Davis’) preferred configuration. The question is whether they’ll be able to stay in that look, or whether they should even want to.
LA’s defense was slightly more solid with Davis at center (106.7 points per 100 non-garbage time possessions, per Cleaning the Glass) than power forward (107.8) during the regular season. The offensive production barely budged depending on which slot he played; but that wasn’t the case with the units that also included LeBron on the floor, which were three points per 100 possessions better with Davis at center. Those margins aren’t huge, but in a conference finals series, every little edge matters.
Frank Vogel should have a quick trigger on McGee and Howard, assuming he goes back to start with the two-big look and be ready to turn to Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma at the 4 more often than he did during the regular season.
What can each team count on getting from the other guys?
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the Nuggets’ run through the playoffs is what they’ve been getting from the guys other than Jokic and Murray.
Grant went cold from beyond the arc during the Clippers series, but his defense has been fantastic and his shooting helped them advance past the Jazz. Millsap has run extremely hot and cold but his good games have been enormously influential. Porter has had a couple huge scoring nights, but crucially, he has found ways to contribute beyond putting the ball in the basket. With the exception of his ridiculous layup attempt at the end of Game 7 against Utah, Craig has mostly been solid. Since returning to his 15-20 minute per game backup point guard role, Monte Morris has been steady. And after a few games of not contributing much on offense after his return from injury, Gary Harris has been terrific on both ends. The Nuggets need all of these things to continue through this series. Not just some of them. They need all of these guys at the top of their games.
LA’s bench, led by Rondo and Caruso, has come through with some huge contributions in the first two rounds. Kuzma has had some influential games as well, and Morris was mostly quite good against the Rockets. The Lakers need Rondo and Caruso’s work on defense (against Murray) more than offense, but Rondo’s ability to move the ball and Caruso’s work as a cutter in the half-court are important as well. Kuzma and Morris’ on-and-off shooting (as well as that of Green and Caldwell-Pope) needs to be on more than off, and they’ve got to be able to handle Millsap and/or Porter in space.
While the stars will get the majority of the attention, one team getting significantly more than the other from its supporting players could tip the balance of the series.