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The Denver Nuggets are hosting the Los Angeles Lakers in Game One of the Western Conference Finals Tuesday night as Denver hopes to make its first-ever Finals and LA its first championship since 2020.
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The Nuggets are right in the middle of their best-ever chance to reach and win the organization’s first NBA Finals. They had the number-one seed in the Western Conference and have dominated their first two opponents, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers, most recently beating Phoenix 125-100 on the road in Game Six.
Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic finally has the proper supporting cast around him to make this team elite. In years past, Jamal Murray has been hurt, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon weren’t as developed, and the bench was thin. This year, everyone knows their role and plays that role at a high level most of the time they take the court.
Denver also has an advantage playing at home in four of seven games in this series if it goes that far. They were 35-6 at altitude during the regular season and are 5-0 in the postseason, with wins coming by an average of 17 points. That line of logic is partially why DraftKings has Denver as a -155 favorite to win the series overall, whereas the Lakers are a +130 underdog.
If there’s one team that isn’t going to go down without a fight, it is the experienced but hungry Lakers. They have already won two Game Ones, both on the road, in their first two series of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors and beat the latter 122-101 their last time on the court. They are also more experienced than the Nuggets and went to Denver early to get adjusted to the altitude.
The series is going to be defined by the individual matchup between Jokic and Anthony Davis, who is having one of the best defensive playoffs of all time. Jokic is averaging 24.3 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game in his last 10 matchups against Davis which, although impressive, is down on his usual averages.
LeBron James also proved in Game Six against the Warriors that his lethargy and lack of interest at times were not a sign that he was out of gas. He closed out Golden State with 30 points on 10-14 shooting to go with nine rebounds and nine assists and put his body into the next gear, although he still did not look as if he was at his maximum. His ability to raise his ceiling will also be paramount to the Lakers’ hopes.
Jokic is averaging an unprecedented 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 9.7 in these playoffs. Murray is close behind at 25.9 points and 6.5 assists, while Gordon, Bruce Brown, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are all averaging at least 10.5 points. Denver as a team is shooting the best-combined percentage from three (37.9%) and has the best net and offensive ratings.
Denver’s ability to influence the game using the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll will be crucial to its success against a nearly impenetrable Lakers' interior defense. The Warriors were only able to find success because they hunted Davis in the pick-and-roll and drew him away from the basket, but he will not have to honor the Nuggets the same way unless Steph Curry shows up in time for Game One.
The Nuggets’ postseason defense has been far superior to its regular-season defense. Their ability to maintain that will also be crucial since the Lakers have proven that they have at least seven players that can light up the scoreboard if given the opportunity.
The Lakers have the third-best net rating and the best defensive rating. They also lead both net and defensive ratings in the clutch, the latter by a gargantuan amount. Most of that credit goes to Davis, but Autin Reaves, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Dennis Schroder have also been able to lockdown opponents on the perimeter.
Davis has largely been the lifeblood of the postseason Lakers. He is averaging 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks, while LeBron has posted 23.4 points, 10 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. LeBron also closed out the final five games of the Warriors series shooting 38.7% from beyond the arc after shooting worse than 20% during the opening round.
The Lakers’ offensive effectiveness has coincided with its ability to get to the free-throw line. With Jokic being the obvious number-one on the Nuggets, it would not be a surprise to see them prioritize attacking the rim not only to keep their offense humming but also to get him in foul trouble and try to take him out of his rhythm.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham might be in his rookie season, but he has had his team ready to play on the road in Game One and has made adjustments whenever necessary. But with respect to Ham and the Lakers stars, Denver has been a handful at home and has greater morale than ever before in modern history. Expect them to walk away with a win and a cover in a game that stays close throughout but opens up at the very end.
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Grant is a sports and sports betting journalist who prides himself on delivering breaking news and insightful analyses of the industry. Grant graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and is feverishly pursuing his ambitions in the sports betting field.
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