The Los Angeles Lakers have shocked the rest of the Western Conference so far in the playoffs, advancing to the Western Conference Finals as the No. 7 seed.
Los Angeles has turned its season around since the trade deadline, but it may have its toughest test yet with the Denver Nuggets waiting.
This is a rematch of the 2020 Western Conference Finals from the NBA’s Orlando, Fla. bubble. The Lakers won that series in five games, going on to win the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat.
Lakers star Anthony Davis recently made a point to share that he and LeBron James are hungry to capture another ring this season after the team beat the Golden State Warriors in the second round.
Anthony Davis: "Me and Bron want another one, unfinished business." pic.twitter.com/5qbeLegYF5
— Lakers Daily (@LakersDailyCom) May 13, 2023
Denver is 8-3 so far in the playoffs, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns in the first two rounds. The matchup between two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and Davis should be a great one to watch in this series, but there are a few things the Lakers have to do if they want to win.
Here are five keys for the Lakers to win the series against Denver and advance to the NBA Finals.
1. Protect home court
This seems like an obvious one, but stealing a game in Denver is going to be extremely tough, so the Lakers don’t want to put themselves in a spot where they need to steal multiple games.
The Nuggets are a perfect 6-0 in the playoffs at home, and they were one of the best regular season teams at home as well, going 34-7.
Denver is elite on both ends at home this season. They posted the No. 3 net rating at home in the regular season (9.6). The team was second in offensive rating and sixth in defensive rating.
The Lakers have defended their own home court well, going 7-0 in the postseason (including the play-in win over Minnesota), and they’ll need to do that again in this series.
Playing in higher altitude in Denver is always tough, and the Nuggets thrive on protecting home court. The Lakers can certainly steal one game in Denver, but asking them to win two may be a bit of a stretch.
2. Make someone other than Jamal Murray score
The Nuggets failed to get past the first round of the playoffs last season, but they didn’t have Jamal Murray due to a torn ACL. This season, he’s proven to be one of the key factors to Denver’s success.
Murray played in the playoffs when Denver made the Western Conference Finals in the 2019-20 season, and his scoring this season has directly correlated to Denver winning games.
The Nuggets were 24-8 during the regular season when Murray scored 20 or more points, and they are 5-2 in the playoffs when he gets at least 20. Murray averaged exactly 20.0 points per game in the regular season, but he’s increased that number to 25.9 points per game in the playoffs.
Slowing down Murray is easier said than done, but Jokic is likely going to get his regardless of what the Lakers do defensively. If the Lakers can force the Nuggets to have someone else other than Murray step up as the No. 2 option, it should give them a better chance to win.
3. Keep Anthony Davis out of foul trouble
Davis’ defense has been a game changer for the Lakers in the playoffs, and the team will need him at his best to slow down Jokic.
This postseason, Jokic is averaging 30.7 points, 12.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game while shooting 54.9 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from 3-point range.
Asking Davis to slow down Jokic is a near impossible task, but the Lakers can’t afford for their star big man to have to sit out due to foul trouble.
In the playoffs, Los Angeles is plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the floor. Overall, the team is a net plus-16.9 points per 100 possessions with Davis, showing just how impactful he is when on the floor.
The Lakers don’t have a secondary option that can really handle Jokic, so there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Davis to mirror the two-time MVP’s minutes and attempt to slow him down.
The last thing the Lakers want is to rely on someone like Wenyen Gabriel to guard Jokic because Davis has to sit with foul issues.
4. Dominate inside the paint
Both of these teams thrived scoring in the paint during the regular season, ranking fourth (Denver) and sixth (Los Angeles) in points in the paint per game.
While they both scored well in the paint, they also struggled defending that area of the floor. Los Angeles allowed 52.8 points per game in the paint this regular season (23rd in the NBA) while Denver was 21st in that category, allowing 52.5 points in the paint per game.
If the Lakers can control that area of the floor, it likely means they are getting some easy looks at the basket.
Given how dominant Davis has been blocking shots this postseason (3.3 blocks per game in the playoffs), the Lakers can deter the Nuggets from getting easy looks at the cup.
5. Limit Denver’s advantage from beyond the arc
So far in the playoffs, the Nuggets rank second in the NBA in 3-point percentage (37.9 percent) while the Lakers are 11th (33.1 percent).
It’s going to be tough for the Lakers to shoot better than the Nuggets, who finished the regular season with the No. 4 3-point percentage in the league, but the team needs to at least keep things close in that department.
If the Nuggets consistently win the battle from beyond the arc, it will be hard for the Lakers to keep up offensively.
Los Angeles has a chance to beat anyone with Davis and James healthy, but winning these key areas will give the Lakers an even better chance of advancing to the NBA Finals.