Nuggets vs. Lakers predictions, picks, schedule for 2020 Western Conference finals

What to know about Nuggets vs. Lakers

So that “Battle for Los Angeles” many assumed would happen once the 2020 NBA playoffs reached the Western Conference finals? Well, maybe next year.

The top-seeded Lakers have lived up to expectations through two rounds, easily dispatching both the Trail Blazers and Rockets in five games. LeBron James (26.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists per game) and Anthony Davis (27.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists) are leading the way during this postseason run, and they are the main reasons why the Lakers are considered the championship favorites.

But don’t be so quick to dismiss their opponent. The No. 3 Nuggets fought back from 3-1 deficits in the first round and the conference semifinals, most recently eliminating the Clippers and ending any thoughts of an all-LA showdown.

As Denver coach Mike Malone has repeatedly noted, this is one of the West’s top teams, not an underdog story. The Nuggets have their own dynamic duo in Jamal Murray (27.1 points, 6.4 assists, 5.0 rebounds) and Nikola Jokic (25.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists), and they are here to win, not simply exist as another hurdle for the Lakers.

No one understands that better than James.

“It takes a lot of energy, effort, a lot of desperation to be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit. They did it twice,” James recently said of the Nuggets. “So the respect level is out of this world for what we have for this ball club. That’s how we’re going into this series: understanding what they’re capable of, where they stand.”

The key matchup

Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokic

In a series that featured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, it was Jokic who stood above everyone else on the court. “The Joker” torched the Clippers over seven games, averaging 24.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 35.2 percent from 3-point range and 82.9 percent on free throws. At 25 years old, he has already established himself as one of the NBA’s premier playoff performers.

While Lakers coach Frank Vogel will likely insert Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee back into the rotation after using them sparingly against the Rockets’ small-ball lineups, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Davis doesn’t guard Jokic on some possessions. We’re talking about a member of this year’s All-Defensive First Team, and a guy who is built to at least give Jokic trouble.

Davis (6-10, 253 pounds) is at a disadvantage in the weight department against Jokic (7-0, 284 pounds), but his length has given Jokic problems in the past.

 

Unlike Clippers center Ivica Zubac, Davis is quick enough to recover to the 3-point line and bother Jokic’s high-arcing bombs if the Nuggets go with a pick-and-pop. Davis can also stick with quicker guards like Murray if he is forced to switch. (Again, All-Defensive First Team.)

And on the other end, Jokic trying to stop AD? Malone might want to shift him somewhere else.

 

There are no magic game plans to stop players as skilled and talented as Davis and Jokic. The question is whether one side can limit the efficiency and effectiveness of the other.

The X-factor

Paul Millsap

 To put it kindly, the Millsap stretches for Denver haven’t gone well this postseason. In 332 playoff minutes with Millsap on the floor, the Nuggets’ net rating is minus-6.3 and their defensive rating is a nightmarish 118.1. (For context, the Cavs had the worst defensive rating in the NBA this season at 114.8.)

Still, the 35-year-old can be a game changer. Look no further than Game 5 against the Clippers when Millsap refused to back down during an altercation with Marcus Morris. That little, uh, conversation sparked a Nuggets second-half surge. Millsap scored 14 points in the third quarter alone to keep Denver afloat, and the rest is history.

 

“They started running their mouths a little bit, and it kinda woke us up,” Millsap said after Game 5. “I know the word is we’re soft, and you know, we’re not gonna let these guys come in and just push us around, so I think that’s what sparked it. We wanted to prove a point that we’re not going to be bullied. We’re not gonna be intimidated.”

The Nuggets will be relying on Millsap to prevent the Lakers from pushing them around in the conference finals.

He will likely be defending both James and Davis throughout the series, and his help defense and rotations will be just as important. Offensively, Denver needs Millsap to take and make open shots to punish Los Angeles if it loads up on Murray and Jokic.

The big number

23.2

The Lakers are scoring 23.2 points per game in transition, the top mark among playoff participants, and James is averaging 6.8 points per game himself in transition, also No. 1 in the league. When James and his teammates get rolling downhill, good luck stopping them.

Can the Nuggets force the Lakers to play in front of a set defense? The key will be minimizing live-ball turnovers and sprinting back on defense so multiple bodies are blocking James’ path to the basket.

Nuggets vs. Lakers schedule

Date Game Time (ET) National TV
Sept. 18 Game 1 9 p.m. TNT
Sept. 20 Game 2 7:30 p.m. TNT
Sept. 22 Game 3 9 p.m. TNT
Sept. 24 Game 4 9 p.m. TNT
Sept. 26 Game 5* 9 p.m. TNT
Sept. 28 Game 6* TBD TNT
Sept. 30 Game 7* TBD TNT

*if necessary

Nuggets vs. Lakers prediction

Lakers in six

Look, no one should be surprised if the Nuggets find a way to win this series. The Lakers know this group is stepping onto the big stage with confidence and will not fold if it faces a little adversity. (Perhaps it would be best to avoid trying to gain a 3-1 advantage?)

With that said, it’s hard to envision Denver beating Los Angeles four times out of seven. The Lakers seem better equipped to handle Murray and Jokic than the Nuggets are in trying to slow down James and Davis.

 

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