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Five things to watch (with some betting tips) for Lakers vs. Nuggets

Natalie and Reeta Hubbard "The NFL Chick" discuss the viability of the Denver Nuggets as an NBA title contender after the Nuggets breeze past the Phoenix Suns.

It’s not easy to get a feel for this series because, while it is a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals from the bubble, both teams are very different.

Even this season’s games are not helpful. All four regular season meetings between the Lakers and Nuggets occurred before the NBA trade deadline, when the Lakers revamped their roster. Those games are largely useless in predicting what happens starting Tuesday night in the Mile High City. While the Lakers had the best record in the West after the All-Star break (16-7) the Nuggets had run away and hid from the rest of the West by that point, took their foot off the gas and coasted in, all while maintaining the No. 1 seed. In the playoffs, they have stepped on the gas again and been impressive.

Here are four things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) Nikola Jokić vs. Anthony Davis

The two best big men still playing will go head-to-head for much of this series, and that likely decides it.

Jokić has been a force these playoffs averaging 30.7 points with a 62.6 true shooting percentage, plus 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists a game. As Draymond Green correctly noted on his podcast, if the Lakers let Jokić be a scorer and a facilitator they will lose, they have to limit him. Davis and the Lakers did that in the bubble where Jokić put up numbers — 21.8 points and five assists a game — but it was not enough.

However, there are two reasons it will be hard for the Lakers to repeat that bubble success. First, Jokić is a better player now than three years ago. He is a much more diverse threat. Also in the bubble, the Lakers had other traditional bigs (Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee) who could body up Jokić, now a lot of that falls to AD and Jokić has traditionally overpowered him.

Second, he has shooters and cutters around him everywhere now. Once the help comes, he will find the open man. Maybe the Lakers are willing to live with that, but don’t confuse these Nuggets with a Warriors team where Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson struggled — Denver’s shooters are hot and there are no guys to hide on. Also, the Lakers struggled early in Game 4 last round when the Warriors started Gary Payton II, leading to Davis covering Green and having to come out to the level of the ball on screens, then the Warriors carved the Lakers up with back cuts and good passing. That’s what the Nuggets do every game, and they are deeper than this year’s Warriors.

On the flip side, the Nuggets will have difficulty slowing Davis and the Lakers’ offense.

Expect the Lakers to run a lot of pick-and-roll with Davis as the screener and try to force Denver to switch — LeBron will blow by Jokić — or they will have to deal with Davis as a roll man. The Lakers also now have shooting everywhere with Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and on down the line. The Lakers are going to score. The question is, do the Nuggets play a drop coverage and do their best to clog the lane — they are not a great rim-protecting team but they have good size — and let LeBron, Davis and the rest take their two-pointers and think they can just win the math problem by being an offensive force on the other end.

This is a clash of strengths: The Nuggets have a league-best 118.7 offensive rating in the playoffs, while the Lakers have a league-best 106.5 defensive rating this postseason. Which side wins that battle?

2) Can either team slow down dribble penetration?

If this becomes a Jamal Murray series Los Angeles is in trouble.

The Lakers have struggled to stop guard penetration all season long — even after the trade deadline — and Murray is playing much more like pre-injury bubble Murray, slashing into the paint. Davis will not be able to drop back in deep coverage because Jokić can shoot the three and would just carve that defense up.

This is not the Warriors, who struggled to consistently hit the 3, especially on the road (the Warriors shot below 30% from 3 on the road last series). The Nuggets are shooting 37.9% from 3 this postseason and all their starters and rotation players can shoot — leave Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Bruce Brown and they will knock the shot down. Michael Porter Jr. is hitting better than 40% from 3 this postseason. Aaron Gordon is a threat. You get the idea.

On the flip side, the Lakers are not Phoenix, which had two guys who could put the ball on the floor and create and nothing after that. Reaves, Russell, Dennis Schroder can all get into the paint as shot creators for themselves and others. If/when the Nuggets have to help on LeBron and Davis, the Lakers will move the ball and the help defense of the Nuggets is not elite.

We have seen big games from the Lakers supporting cast these playoffs and this series sets up for more of those games.

3) Are the Nuggets ready for this moment?

All season long, even as the Nuggets cruised to the No. 1 seed in the West, there has been an attitude from basketball fans (and many pundits) of, “That’s nice, but you have to prove it in the playoffs.”

Through two rounds, Denver has proved it. They are in the conference finals and have looked like the best team in the West doing it.

Now the lights get brighter — LeBron James and the Lakers as an organization are used to this stage. As LeBron likes to say, he and his teams are comfortable being uncomfortable. They are going to play well.

Will Denver? They look ready for this moment, but what happens when they are in it? The Nuggets as an organization are not used to being here, and Jokić and company only did it in the one-off experience of the bubble.

As sports fans, we often have a “you can’t do it until you’ve done it” attitude with players and teams. A quarterback can’t win the Super Bowl until we see them win the Super Bowl. We haven’t seen Denver do it at this NBA level, so we’re skeptical. Are the Nuggets ready to flip that narrative?

4) Vaughn Dalzell’s Lakers vs. Nuggets betting tips

During this postseason, the Nuggets are 6-0 at home, while the Lakers are 7-0 at home. With that factored in, the favorite for the series length is seven games at +175 odds. You are better off betting the Lakers in 7 at +650 or Denver in 7 at +310, both better payouts and easy hedges.

Is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP) the Denver Nuggets X-Factor for the series? KCP was a large part of the Lakers 2019-20 Championship team, averaging 12.8 points per game in the NBA Finals. This postseason as a Denver Nugget, KCP’s averaged 10.5 points per game in the playoffs.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

5) Can LeBron and Davis keep it up for another series?

“I may have looked like I was conserving my energy but I was dead tired after every one of them games. Same with tonight,” LeBron said after the Lakers eliminated the Warriors in Game 6. “You know, you really don’t have the opportunity to conserve your energy versus a Golden State team because they always keep you on your heels.”

So does Denver.

LeBron and Anthony Davis got three days off between Friday’s win and Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday, but now this series goes every other day and with the first couple of games at altitude.

Davis has had some duds this postseason (Game 5 against Memphis being the most glaring), but against this Nuggets team the Lakers can’t just give one away. LeBron and Davis have been resilient and found wells of energy to tap into when needed, they will need more of it in this series because the Nuggets offense will test their defense like no team has yet. LeBron and Davis have not worn down this postseason, can they keep it up for one more series?

Prediction: Nuggets in seven. This was not an easy pick, the Lakers could win this in six (and I do trust LeBron more in a Game 7, even on the road, than anyone else in this series). This feels like a 55%/45% Nuggets series, although I think I could be selling the Nuggets short and they are as good as they have looked. That said, this Lakers team has won me over, I just don’t think they can slow this Denver offense enough to win the series.