3 Key Matchups That Will Determine Outcome in Lakers vs. Nuggets Series, Ranked

Omar Guerrero
8 Min Read
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After an unexpected turn of events in the second round of the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Not many expected the Nuggets to come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Los Angeles Clippers, but Denver outlasted them with grit, determination and a never-say-die attitude.

Some of the interesting individual matchups in the upcoming series will feature a battle of towering All-Stars, the King versus a versatile defender and a couple of young up-and-comers.

Though these players may not necessarily guard one another all the time, their performances will be watched closely and nitpicked by fans and critics alike especially with the brighter lights of a bigger stage.

3. Kyle Kuzma vs. Jamal Murray

Kyle Kuzma and Jamal Murray
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Murray’s offensive brilliance in the playoffs has been a sight to behold, and the Lakers will have to be ready for a superstar in the making who could go supernova on them in the conference finals.

The seventh overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, Murray had a Game 7 for the ages on Tuesday night. He exploded for 40 points on 15-of-26 field goals against one of the toughest defenses in the league. The Clippers simply couldn’t stop him, as Murray sent them home almost singlehandedly.

It’s up to Kuzma to try to negate Murray’s impact in the upcoming series by providing lockdown defense and giving the Lakers additional offensive firepower off the bench.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel will likely ask the 25-year-old forward to defend the Nuggets guard if Murray starts shooting lights out as he has done in the previous two rounds of the playoffs.

Kuzma has shown that he can be a defensive stopper in the playoffs, often guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player. The extra responsibility has taken its toll on his scoring, but the Lakers would not have dispatched of their previous opponents so easily without Kuzma’s hard work on the other end of the court.

Of the seven players on the Lakers roster averaging 20 or more minutes a game, Kuzma is fourth in defensive rating in the postseason just behind Alex Caruso, Anthony Davis and LeBron James.

Thus far in the playoffs, he has been matched up against elite scorers like Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

It doesn’t get any easier for Kuzma as he will likely be called upon to stop the red-hot Murray from wreaking havoc against his team.

2. LeBron James vs. Jerami Grant

LeBron James and Jerami Grant Lakers
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Grant is averaging the third most minutes in the playoffs for the Nuggets right behind Murray and Nikola Jokic. He will have the unenviable task of guarding James and making sure that the 16-time All-Star doesn’t have a clear view of the basket or his teammates.

A 6-foot-8 forward with arms that go on forever, Grant did an unbelievable job making Kawhi Leonard work for his shots during the recent Nuggets-Clippers series. In his last three games, all Clippers losses, Leonard made only 40.6 percent of his field-goal attempts as Grant hounded the Clippers forward wherever he went.

James, however, will be a different challenge for the 26-year-old. Grant is at least 40 pounds lighter than the four-time MVP, who will take advantage of Grant’s slighter build when they face off.

In order to contain James (26.6 points per game average in the postseason), Nuggets coach Michael Malone will have to double team him every now and then, all the while hoping that the strategy doesn’t bite them in the end.

James’ court vision is as deadly a weapon as any. He was the league’s top assist man during the regular season and is averaging 8.8 assists in the playoffs.

Grant doesn’t score a bunch of baskets (10.1 points a game on 8.4 field-goal attempts in the playoffs), but that doesn’t mean the defensive load will be light for James. The burden of running the offense, scoring and guarding a fleet-footed youngster could prove to be taxing on James’ body after playing two rounds in the playoffs already.

Nevertheless, James will have the upper hand in this matchup most of the time as Grant will discover that he has his hands full on defense trying to stop the future Hall of Famer.

1. Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokic

Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic
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This is the marquee matchup of the series.

Davis will have his hands full guarding Jokic, who can do just about anything on the basketball court. One of the league’s elite big men, the Nuggets center can control a ball game with or without the ball as he demonstrated versus the Clippers.

Despite struggling from the field (5-of-13) in Game 7, Jokic grabbed 22 boards and dished out 13 assists. He was practically unstoppable on the offensive end without having a huge offensive output because of his passing.

Though Davis will not likely guard Jokic most of the time, he will have to be smart whenever he is matched up against his fellow All-Star. The Laker forward will have to utilize his speed and quickness advantages to overcome Jokic’s strengths.

Additionally, Davis will have to protect the paint and provide help defense to his teammates for the Lakers to continue being successful. The Purple and Gold have a defensive rating of 101.4 with Davis on the floor in the postseason. With him on the bench, their defensive rating drops to 113.7.

On the offensive end, Davis’ sweet stroke from the outside will keep Jokic on his toes defensively. Double teaming Davis when he’s on the perimeter will probably be Malone’s best option if Jokic is left alone against the University of Kentucky alum.

Davis can take the Nuggets center inside or outside, giving Jokic a nightly mix of jumpers and drives to the basket. Facing off against an elite two-way player in the conference finals is going to be a huge challenge for Jokic if he doesn’t bring his A game every night.

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Omar is a former writer for King James Gospel. The very first team he rooted for was the Showtime Lakers and his favorite player back then was James Worthy. Seeing the Purple and Gold win back-to-back championships in the '80s made him a basketball junkie for life. He has witnessed and celebrated every Lakers championship since then and is now looking forward to a new era of basketball in Tinseltown led by LeBron James.