The Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets meet to decide the Western Conference champion. Will LeBron and the Lakers climb to the top one more time, or will Jokic and Denver finally reach the promised land?
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The Lakers and the Nuggets couldn’t be more different in terms of history – but their path to the 2023 Western Conference Finals has been remarkably similar.
True, the Lakers needed to survive the play-in, while the Nuggets enjoyed home-court advantage. But both teams won surprisingly easy first-round series before winning as underdogs in six games in their respective second-round series.
Despite their seeding, many experts thought Denver would hit a roadblock against the Phoenix Suns. Instead, the Nuggets’ recipe of experience, depth, and coaching sent the Suns packing in a 4-2 series.
Meanwhile, the Lakers may have ended the age of the Golden State Warriors once and for all with a similar six-game victory.
Now they meet with a trip to The Finals on the line. Either way, we’re getting a historical accomplishment: will Denver win the franchise’s first Western Conference title? Or will the Lakers become the first 7 seed to advance to the NBA’s championship round?
Los Angeles Lakers Preview
A 2-10 start to the 2022-2023 NBA season had fans and so-called experts alike doing the unthinkable: they counted out a LeBron James-led team.
They won’t make that mistake again, but it hasn’t been only The King.
LeBron leads the purple and gold in scoring this postseason with 23.4 points per game, but five different Lakers are averaging double figures.
Anthony Davis averages a double-double with 21.8 points and tops the NBA with 14 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per contest – a big part of the reason the Lakers lead all remaining playoff teams in rebounding.
The Russell Westbrook trade in February re-energized the Lakers, as they reacquired guard D’Angelo Russell while also adding forward Jarred Vanderbilt, whose presence could be critical against the Nuggets.
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However, the deal also clearly defined the roles of shooting guard Austin Reaves and sixth man Rui Hachimura, who’ve rewarded the Lakers this postseason. Both players had big games in Game 1 against Memphis to galvanize L.A.’s postseason run.
In fact, contributions from all areas have been a theme for the Lakers. Lonnie Walker’s fourth quarter in game 4 against Golden State will go down in playoff lore should the Lakers go all the way this year, while Dennis Schroder played a big part in disrupting Golden State’s Jordan Poole through the second round.
In all, the Lakers’ evolving roster (six of the 15 players who’ve appeared in the playoffs did not start the season with L.A.) is evidence of a changing NBA, where riding 1-2 superstars all year long simply isn’t enough.
Denver Nuggets Preview
Can a two-time Most Valuable Player be underappreciated?
If so, Nikola Jokic fits the bill. Despite back-to-back awards in 2021 and 2022, some still resist adding Jokic to the list of the NBA’s best.
Jokic can end all doubt by winning his first ring, and these Western finals represent his best chance yet. Another impressive regular season has yielded an even more dominant postseason, with Jokic on the verge of AVERAGING a triple-double in the first 11 games (30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, 9.7 assists).
The Depth in Denver
And yet the real story of the Nuggets is their depth. Six players – one more than L.A. – average double figures.
Calling point guard Jamal Murray the leader of the ‘supporting cast’ sells short his 25 points, five rebounds, and six assists per contest. The Nuggets go essentially eight deep, with Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rounding out the starting lineup.
Bruce Brown and Jeff Green are reliable role players in the frontcourt, and DeAndre Jordan may be nearing the end of his career but gives Denver one more body to throw at Davis on the defensive end.
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The X Factor: Superstar Matchups
While Anthony Davis has impressed so far this postseason, his matchups have left fans wanting more. Steven Adams was out for Memphis, and Golden State has no one who can contend with the 6-foot-11 Davis.
That ends now, as Nikola Jokic presents a challenge like none other in the Western Conference. Can the Nuggets’ big man draw Davis away from the hoop or get him into foul trouble with his shooting and passing out of the high post?
On the other hand, can Jokic handle Davis’ athleticism advantages on the other end?
Then there’s The King. LeBron faced a couple of defensive aces in the first two rounds. Say what you like about Memphis’ Dillon Brooks, but he made All-Defense this year. Then Andrew Wiggins headlined a host of Warriors who tried – and failed – to slow the future Hall of Famer.
Aaron Gordon figures to get the LeBron assignment, and if it goes poorly there’s no clear backup plan for Denver.
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Lakers vs. Nuggets Prediction
Here’s the most obvious statement in this preview: LeBron and Jokic are the two best players in the series, and whoever plays better gives his team an edge.
But what else? Can Jamal Murray be the second star for Denver to counter Anthony Davis? Can anyone slow – we know they can’t stop – LeBron for the Nuggets? Will Caldwell-Pope have revenge on his mind against his former team, who got him his only ring in 2020?
I give Denver the slight edge in coaching due to Michael Malone’s experience, but Darvin Ham hasn’t lost a postseason series yet.
And while the Nuggets enjoy home-court advantage against the Lakers… so did Memphis and Golden State, and they’re both watching on TV with the rest of us.
Lakers vs. Nuggets Betting Pick
Here are the current odds for the Western Conference Finals at FanDuel:
|Denver Nuggets (-140)||Los Angeles Lakers (+125)|
It’s going to be close, but I’ll take plus-money on the team with two superstars playing at the top of their games right now. Especially when one of them is LeBron James.
Pick: Los Angeles Lakers (+125) to win Western Conference
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Western Conference Prop Bets
A few other numbers that caught my eyes for the Western Conference Finals (all odds from FanDuel):
Series Correct Score: I’d actually lean to the Lakers in six games (+400) but L.A. in five is awfully tempting at a price of +900.
Series Leading Scorer (total points): It’s probably going to be Jokic (-140) but if you like the idea of a convincing Lakers win, LeBron at +400 might be tough to pass up.
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Lakers vs. Nuggets FAQ
When does the Lakers/Nuggets series start?
Game 1 tips off at 8:30 ET on Tuesday, May 16.
Where can I watch the series?
The games will air on ESPN, except for Game 3 on May 20 airing on ABC.
How did the Lakers and Nuggets fare head-to-head this year?
The Lakers and Nuggets split the season series 2-2, with both teams winning each of their home games. However, they have not met since January 9, and both rosters have changed in the interim.
What is the playoff history between the Lakers and Nuggets?
It’s pretty one-sided, as you might guess. The Lakers have won 25 of 33 all-time playoff games, and came out on top in all seven series between the two franchises.
Most recent was the 2020 Western Finals in the ‘bubble’ where L.A. won the series 4-1 en route to the 2020 NBA Championship.