Moore’s NBA Western Conference Finals Betting Preview: Series Odds, Picks & Predictions for Lakers vs. Nuggets

Credit:

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured (L-R): LeBron James and Jamal Murray.

  • Matt Moore previews the NBA Western Conference Finals series between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, which tips off on Friday night at 9 p.m. ET.
  • Moore reviews current series pricing across the betting industry and recommends his favorite series futures bets for either side of the ledger.
  • He also digs into the key personnel-related and schematic matchups between LA and Denver, including how the Lakers should use Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets are a remarkable story; but once again, no one really gives them a chance — this time vs. the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Some notes from the books:

  • The Lakers are between a -500 and -750 favorite at various books, with more than an 80% implied probability to win the series.
  • Eighty percent of the handle at both DraftKings and BetMGM is on the Nuggets, because it’s the only bet with any value.
  • The highest handle on series outcomes are on Lakers 4-0 or Lakers 5-0, with 35% on those two outcomes at DraftKings.
  • The Lakers are PointsBet‘s largest remaining liability to win the NBA title now that the Clippers have fallen into the sea.
  • The majority of the bets in Game 1 are on Denver at PointsBet, BetMGM, and FanDuel. However, a higher percentage of the money is on the Lakers at all three books, and the Lakers’ side has drawn the majority of money at FanDuel and PointsBet.

So is the handle and number right?  Are the Nuggets going to get stomped?


The Matchups

Lakers Bigs vs. Nikola Jokic

This is a fascinating difference in perception. Analysis outside of Denver believes that the secret is putting Anthony Davis at the five and playing small ball. The analysis closer to the team is concerned about the bigs.

Jokic destroys small-ball matchups — which Davis most definitely is not — with post-ups and sheer brutal strength. But Davis at the five means a lot of Markieff Morris at the four; or LeBron at the four with smaller wings, which benefits Denver who is undersized in the backcourt.

Let me put it this way: Even if Davis’ length and athleticism shuts down Jokic, his passing remains a problem if the other Nuggets have advantages.

The numbers say otherwise, that the small-ball lineups absolutely wreck the Nuggets, and perhaps early in the series that’s true. But the more time you give Jokic a look, the more he figures it out. He would figure out small ball, even against Davis, and even if it meant not scoring much. He didn’t crack 20 points in Game 7 vs. the Clippers, and it was his best performance.

The big lineup… he can’t solve. Raw size neutralizes his strength advantage, athleticism and length and punishes his lack thereof. Crafty moves and angles can be rendered irrelevant by a big paw knocking the ball into the dark recesses of the NBA court set or into the kiddie row of the family section.

Jokic is 6-8 in his career vs. JaVale McGee. This isn’t because McGee is dominant; he played for the Warriors and Lakers over the span of his head-to-head matchups with Jokic. But it’s also proof that Jokic was unable to tilt those advantages into wins. He’s 4-5 vs. Dwight Howard. He’s 7-6 vs. Anthony Davis, but Davis averages 29 points and 2.2 blocks per game in his career vs. Jokic.

The Nuggets can have one of the centers take the primary assignment and use Davis as backline rim protector. That’s a problem.


The James Conundrum

The question of “Who’s going to guard LeBron?” is always so silly to me. It’s LeBron James. No one has stopped him for 17 years outside of the Celtics’ Big 3, J.J. Barea, and the Warriors, arguably the greatest team ever assembled.

Torrey Craig’s numbers are promising. LeBron shot 4-of-15 in three games vs. Craig. Compare that to 7-of-11 vs. Paul Millsap and 4-of-7 vs. Jerami Grant. But even with Craig’s success, you can’t hold any belief in it. It’s LeBron James.

James has shown signs of cracking. As it is with all stars as they age, the problem is not one of ceilings. James’ best is still a heavenly tapestry. It’s that there are more games where he struggled to finish at the rim and finished with scoring in the teens snuck in between the 30-point triple-doubles.

But ultimately, the biggest challenge that Nuggets coach Michael Malone has with regards to James is battling himself. So many good coaches, from Mike Budenholzer to Nate McMillan to Brad Stevens, have fallen into the trap of trying to layer defense to stop all aspects of James.

They bring help at the elbow and at the rim. This worked in 2010 with Tom Thibodeau’s defense. It doesn’t work anymore. James is better, smarter, and quicker in decision-making. And the results are 3s that are more efficient than James trying to score contested baskets.

Michael Malone told reporters multiple times in his press conference Thursday that the Nuggets’ game plan is to pack the paint to try and deter the lobs that the Lakers get easily with their size, and to try to limit James’ impact at the rim.

It’s a good plan, but the problem is the shooters. If the Lakers shooters are open and they generate 3s, that’s too much offense for the Nuggets to create vs. the Lakers’ physical defense.


Denver’s Advantages

Denver has found shooting when it’s needed to. Jokic has the ability to space the floor in pick-and-pops, which Davis doesn’t want to defend.

Denver has to maximize its 3-point opportunities. That’s come and gone for them in the playoffs, but it’s imperative for the Nuggets nonetheless. The Rockets’ best chance against Denver was to win the 3-point battle, and the Rockets only made 14 more 3s in the series.

They needed that gap to be wider, obviously.

Jokic and Murray are good enough to win at least one game and give them a puncher’s chance on their own. If that seems dubious vs. the Lakers, bear in mind that while Jokic’s matchup gets tougher in this series, Murray is going from Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George to Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Those are three really good defenders. They’re just not elite.

But ultimately, you can’t believe the Nuggets’ supporting cast will provide enough scoring to get past what the Lakers bring to the table as long as they get anything from the non-Davis-LeBron players.


My Favorite Series Bet

Series Total Games Spread: Nuggets +2.5 (+102) at FanDuel

I don’t like the matchup for Denver, on multiple levels. I liked the matchup vs. the Clippers, but this one is bleak.

However, one thing not to overlook is Denver’s ability to adapt. They looked helpless vs. the Jazz in the first four games. Then they figured out adjustments, played with fight, and came back. They looked overmatched vs. the Clippers, figured out adjustments, played with fight, and came back.

Bear in mind that the closest game to the two teams being full strength was before the All-Star break — and it went to overtime. Denver has hung with the Lakers… but they didn’t win. I like them to win at least two games.

[Bet the Nuggets Series Total Games Spread now at FanDuel and get a $1,000 risk-free bet.]

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Editors Note: FanDuel is offering the best pricing for the series spread at +102, but new users may consider placing their Nuggets series wins wager at +100 at BetMGM, which is offering a $500 instant deposit match just for signing up].


If you’re on the Lakers side, go the full way.  Lakers 4-1 is +210. If this thing tilts, it tilts the full way quickly before Denver can stage one of its comebacks. They’re not sneaking up on their opponents this time.

The line has been tricky. It was higher in the Clippers series, but winning that series seemed to have carried some effect with the market. A better look is likely the under, not only because it falls in line with the playoff trends, but because if Denver wins, it means the Lakers’ mediocre half-court offense struggles; and if the Lakers win, it means their defense muzzled the Nuggets.

It should be a good series. But then again, the playoffs have been full of surprises. Maybe the final twist in the West is this one not being much of a series at all.

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