Heading into the Western Conference Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, much of the talk was focused on how the Los Angeles Clippers collapsed against the Nuggets to derail the Battle of Los Angeles that was promised since the start of the season. Despite entering another series as the underdog, Denver has proven that it belongs, especially after taking the difficult route in beating the Utah Jazz in the first round and the Clippers in the Western Conference Semifinals by storming back from 3-1 series deficits. In the process, they became the first team to complete multiple 3-1 series comebacks in the same season.
With Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray leading the way, the Nuggets have shown that they can seriously contend for a title now instead of waiting for their young stars to reach their primes. The top-seeded Lakers, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way, will once again present a different challenge for Denver. But Jokic, Murray, and the rest of Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s players have already battled through adversity in these playoffs, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them pull off yet another upset and advance to the NBA Finals. Here are three reasons why the Nuggets can pull off another surprise and beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
1. Nikola Jokic can wreak havoc in different ways
Jokic had a field day against Clippers big men Ivica Zubac and newly minted Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell. Whenever the Clippers stubbornly double-teamed him, Jokic would find his open teammates who knocked down shots. The two-time All Star is coming off a series in which he averaged 24.4 points on 51.5% shooting, 13.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists, and he’s brimming with confidence heading into the West Finals.
Jokic, however, will likely have a tougher time against the Lakers, with Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee likely taking turns to shadow him. Of course, Jokic has shown that he can score in a variety of ways, whether it’s in the post, from beyond the arc, or even on those one-legged jumpers that he seemingly makes with ease.
The 25-year-old Serbian can still do damage for the Nuggets even when he doesn’t put up big scoring numbers. As one of the greatest passing big men the league has ever seen, Jokic can continue creating for his teammates while also crashing the boards. That was certainly the case in Denver’s stunning Game 7 win against the Clippers, when he scored just 16 points but finished with 22 rebounds and 13 assists, tallying a triple-double by the end of the third quarter.
Jokic won’t finish with a triple-double every game, especially against the Lakers’ big men, but he has shown that he can contribute for the Nuggets by facilitating and finding the likes of Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, and Paul Millsap.
2. The Nuggets’ depth can cause problems
Following the Nuggets’ Game 4 loss to the Clippers, Porter said Denver needs to get more people involved if they want to win. The comment was criticized at the time, but it seemed to light a fire under the Nuggets as they racked up three straight wins. The 22-year-old rookie will look to continue to get involved in the Nuggets’ offense against the Lakers. In the playoffs, he has emerged as the team’s third-leading scorer with averages of 11.1 points on 44.8% shooting from the field and 37.3% from beyond the arc.
Denver is also hoping to get a big series out of Grant, who’s averaging 10.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.3 assists for the team in the postseason. The 26-year-old forward will also have the herculean task of guarding James, who has been on a tear in the playoffs for the Lakers. The return of Harris from injury has also been a positive for the Nuggets, as he’s averaging 9.2 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 2.1 assists while also playing solid defense in the postseason.
The Lakers have already faced Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the first round and James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the semis. The Nuggets, however, offer much more depth, with a bevy of shooters and seven players who score at least eight points a game, which presents a different challenge to the Lakers’ vaunted defense.
3. Jamal Murray might have a little more magic in him
Murray was supposed to struggle against the Clippers. After dropping 50 points twice and scoring 42 points in Game 5 against the Jazz, he was supposed to taper off against the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley.
But that’s not what happened.
After struggling early in the series, Murray caught fire again, averaging 29.0 points on 51.6% from the field and a scorching 54.5% from downtown, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists in Denver’s three straight wins. He finished off the Clippers with a 40-point performance in Game 7, proving that there isn’t much defenses can do to stop him right now.
Murray’s string of brilliant offensive performances could very well continue against the Lakers, though their defense will provide challenges. Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all options to throw at Murray, but the 23-year-old has shown that he can score against the best defenders.
The Nuggets have already had a memorable run in the playoffs. Against the heavily favored Lakers, they will be playing loose and confident, especially after the rousing win over the Clippers. That is when Jokic, Murray, and the rest of the team are at their most dangerous and capable of pulling off another massive upset.