Lakers vs Nuggets: Western Conference Finals feature same big names as 2020, but some notable differences

The Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets meet in the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday, and if you’re feeling a little deja vu, that’s because those two teams met in the Conference Finals in 2020. When the NBA decided to resume its season interrupted due to the COVID pandemic in Orlando, the Nuggets and Lakers faced off in five games where LA would go on to win the series and ultimately defeat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

Funny enough, the Eastern Conference Finals is also a 2020 bubble rematch between the Heat and the Celtics, so there’s some real Groundhog Day stuff going on right now in the NBA. But while it’s natural to compare the two meetings when trying to draw conclusions about what we’re about to see, it’s pretty clear that the differences outweigh the similarities in this upcoming series.

For starters, only a handful of players remain the same on both sides. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only two survivors of the Lakers 2020 championship squad, while Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were the only ones present for the previous postseason meeting between Denver and LA.

Roster construction is the most obvious difference between now and the 2020 Western Conference Finals, but there are a few significant ones that could shape this streak. With that in mind, as we prepare for the Lakers and Nuggets to face off again, let’s break down five of the key similarities and differences between the bubble game and what we’re about to witness in the final of the 2023 Western Conference.

1. Davis should dominate like he did in 2020

The most tantalizing match of this series will be between Davis and Jokic. In 2020, Davis completely dominated the Nuggets, who didn’t have an adequate response to try and stop him. With limited frontcourt options, Davis averaged a team-high 31.2 points and 6.2 rebounds over the five games while shooting 54.3 percent from the field. Oh, and he also gutted that winning 3-pointer and beating the buzzer in Game 2 of this series to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead.

If Davis hadn’t hit that 3-pointer, the Nuggets would have tied the series at one game apiece, and we might have gotten a different result than we did, which was LA surging Denver.

The bad news for the Nuggets is that they should run into the same issue when trying to contain AD again. With Aaron Gordon likely tasked with guarding LeBron James throughout the series, Denver doesn’t have another high-quality forward or center to stop Davis getting what he wants. Even though Jokic will try to make life difficult for Davis, he’s just not a good enough defender to have that much impact.

If the Nuggets try to send Davis some help on defense, he’s a high-IQ passer and will find the man open either on a backdoor cut to the edge or redirect him to the perimeter. The Lakers don’t have the perimeter shooters they had in 2020, so Denver might decide to leave someone like Jarred Vanderbilt or Dennis Schroder open to apply more pressure on Davis.

Ultimately, Denver doesn’t have the personnel to deal with Davis, which was the same problem they had in 2020. So the best they can hope for is to limit everyone and force AD to beat them. If that doesn’t work, the Nuggets could be in trouble.

2. The Lakers don’t have as many bodies to throw at Jokic

One of the reasons LA was successful in 2020 against Denver was because they had other guys who could get physical enough with Jokic and make him uncomfortable. Between Davis, Dwight Howard and even JaVale McGee, the Lakers had several guys to wear down Jokic over the course of the series. That same tactic might not work this time around, as outside of Davis, the Lakers don’t really have the luxury of having big extras they can afford to take on to defend Jokic if AD gets in the way. in trouble.

The physique Jokic plays with can tire guys out, and when that happens to Davis, Lakers coach Darvin Ham will have to figure out who he can count on to fill that void when AD needs a rest. This may be where we see a few minutes of Tristan Thompson, who the team signed just before the playoffs, presumably for a situation like this. Thompson won’t be able to stop Jokic, but it’s a new body LA can throw at Jokic in an effort to rest Davis. Mo Bamba is another option, although he will likely be bullied into the paint by Jokic.

The Lakers could try to get smaller with Vanderbilt, but his lack of being an offensive threat doesn’t bode well for LA at the other end of the field. There really isn’t a foolproof option here for the Lakers this time around, and if they can’t figure out who else can keep Jokic besides Davis, then the Nuggets will have the upper hand in this. series.

3. Nugget upgrade to protect LeBron

One of the underrated aspects of Denver’s playoff success thus far has been Gordon’s defense. He contained Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round, kept Kevin Durant from going supernova in the conference semifinals, and now he’ll have his toughest test yet trying to control LeBron James. In 2020, that role as a defender for James has been filled by Jerami Grant, another capable defender, but too small to really make an impact. Although Grant and Gordon are the same height, Gordon is much stronger than Grant, making him an ideal person to guard LeBron.

Gordon’s athleticism should also help him in this battle, especially as LeBron tries to come down. But even if Gordon is equipped to keep LeBron, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. The Lakers are going to put up so many screens to try and get Gordon out of LeBron and try to get Jokic tossed into switches, giving LeBron the go-ahead to the rim. This could become the biggest key to the series, as we already know Davis is likely going to have a blast with Jokic guarding him. So if Gordon can keep LeBron in check or at least turn him into an enabler more than a scorer, then that’s a plus for Denver.

4. A repeat of the Murray bubble

The Orlando bubble produced some truly elite performances, and Murray was at the center of a few of them. It’s been the crown jewel of Murray’s career so far, which included two 50-point outings in the first round against the Utah Jazz and a 40-point outing against the Clippers in the conference semifinals. Although he didn’t score in ridiculous groups against the Lakers in the 2020 Western Conference Finals, he still averaged 25 points, 7.4 assists and 4.4 of 51.8 rebounds. % ground. It was a hugely effective series from Murray, who got just about everything he wanted against an LA defense that, despite elite defender Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, still managed to set them on fire at the course of the five-game series.

Luckily for Murray and the Nuggets, Caldwell-Pope now wears a Denver jersey and Caruso no longer wears the purple and gold. Instead, Murray will have guys like D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves and Schroder coming for him. Schroder can be a havoc for Murray, but he’s slightly undersized in this game and has just been inserted into the starting lineup for Game 6 against the Warriors. The Nuggets can try to target Russell because he’s the weakest defender in the starting unit, something the Lakers can’t afford to let happen. Murray figuring out how to take advantage of some of those mismatches will be key for the Nuggets in this series.

5. Lakers depth is more productive than in 2020

When the Lakers and Nuggets faced off in 2020, it was primarily LeBron and Davis doing all the damage. They got the necessary contributions from role players like Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, but Denver just couldn’t handle the LeBron-Davis tandem. Out of those two, only Caldwell-Pope has averaged double-digits in points during this series.

Lakers score in 2020 Western Conference Finals against Nuggets

Anthony Davis


james lebron


Kentavious Caldwell-Pope


Kyle Kuzma


Dwight Howard


You could argue the Lakers didn’t really need big role-player performances since LA managed Denver in five games, but it was clear the Lakers’ game plan was to let LeBron and Davis bulldoze on the Nuggets, and it worked too.

But while that probably wouldn’t work this time around against a Denver team that’s improved a lot from 2020, the Lakers are also getting a lot more playoff role-player production so far. The Lakers’ top five scorers in the playoffs are scoring in double digits, a shocking improvement from their 2020 title season. Even more impressively, two of those three scorers were brought in at the trade deadline, showing that the LA’s actions in the commercial market in February had a positive impact in more ways than one.

Lakers scores in 2023 playoffs

james lebron


Anthony Davis


D’Angelo Russel


Austin Reaves


Rui Hachimura


If this production continues from guys like Russell, Reaves, and Hachimura, then the Lakers won’t have to rely so much on AD and LeBron for skyrocketing numbers to get them to the finish line against the Nuggets.

While there are some similarities in this game to the previous one in 2020, the stark differences show that these aren’t the same teams that met in the Orlando bubble three years ago. These differences are going to be important factors during this series, and it will determine which team will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

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