The Denver Nuggets' 2023 Western Conference Finals opponent is a familiar one. Three years after the Nuggets' series with the Los Angeles Lakers determined one half of the 2020 NBA Finals, we'll be making our Nuggets Western Conference Finals predictions.
Although the star players are the same, the Nuggets and Lakers are different teams than they were during their series in the NBA bubble. Nikola Jokic is now a two-time MVP and arguably the league's best player. LeBron James is three years older and defying Father Time. Anthony Davis has been the most dominant defensive presence in the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
The Nuggets are slight favorites to beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and reach the 2023 NBA Finals. Denver eliminated Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns with a dominant 25-point victory in Game 6 of their second-round series. The Lakers needed six games to beat the Golden State Warriors, also cruising in their Game 6 clincher.
The No. 1 seed in the West, Denver has certainly looked like the conference's best team during the NBA Playoffs. Can Jokic and Co. continue that against James, Davis and the Lakers? Let's take a look at our Nuggets' Western Conference Finals predictions.
*Watch NBA games LIVE with fuboTV (click for a free trial)*
3. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic will average 35 points and 15 assists
Anyone who might've doubted Jokic's greatness before the playoffs has been proven wrong during the postseason. The Nuggets star is averaging 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists in 11 playoff games. No one can contain Jokic. That includes Davis and the Lakers' No. 1 ranked playoff defense.
The Lakers represent Jokic's most difficult challenge. The Minnesota Timberwolves were the No. 8 seed and barely a threat in the first round. The Phoenix Suns didn't have a big man who could do anything with Jokic. In the bubble, Davis and the Lakers limited Jokic to averages of 21.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
Three years later, an improved Jokic should feast against Los Angeles' defense. Shooting 47.5% from 3-point range in the playoffs, Jokic will force Davis to guard him on the perimeter. It will open up the paint and allow the greatest passing big man of all time to find open scorers. Jokic averaged 34.5 points per game against the Suns and is good enough to match that total in the Western Conference Finals.
2. Nuggets will average more than 115 points per game
The Nuggets-Lakers series pits the best offense in the playoffs against the league's best defense. Denver ranks first with a 118.7 offensive rating in the postseason. Los Angeles' defensive rating of 106.5 ranks first among all playoff teams. There are a few reasons to believe that the Nuggets' offense will win this highly anticipated matchup.
The Lakers were fortunate that the Warriors went cold on the road. In all three games at Crypto.com Arena, Golden State shot below 30% from 3-point range. Plenty of those misses were open looks, including Klay Thompson's inexplicable 22 bricks on 30 attempts. It's highly unlikely that the Nuggets will shoot that poorly from behind the arc. Denver leads the West, making 37.9% of its 3-pointers in the playoffs.
Michael Porter Jr. has made 40% of his playoff 3-pointers. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon are shooting 38.5% and 39.1%, respectively, from distance. Jamal Murray is going to be a tough cover for a Lakers' backcourt that has difficulty keeping guards out of the paint. Davis can only do so much against a Nuggets offense that boasts so many weapons around Jokic.
1. Nuggets will beat the Lakers in six games in the 2023 Western Conference Finals
The Nuggets were better than the Lakers during the regular season. They've been better in the playoffs. With home-court advantage, Denver should be considered the clear favorite to win the Western Conference Finals.
It'll be extremely difficult for the Lakers to steal a game in Denver. Including the playoffs, the Nuggets are 40-7 at home. If the Nuggets are able to take even one game in Los Angeles, that should be enough for Denver to avoid a winner-take-all Game 7.
Because the Nuggets' supporting cast is so good, it's unlikely that Rui Hachimura or Lonnie Walker IV will win a game the way that they did earlier this postseason. Because of age and inconsistency, Davis and James don't play like top-five players every night. Jokic does, and he finally has enough help to break through to the NBA Finals.