Lakers vs. Nuggets Series Odds & Betting Preview: Western Conference Finals NBA Playoff Picks
Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Anthony Davis & Nikola Jokic (Lakers/Nuggets)
The NBA’s darling and the most storied franchise in history, with the Greatest of his Generation or All-Time, depending on your opinion, will face the Rocky Mountain wild cards, with the reluctant superstar who no one seems to believe in.
The No. 7 seed upstarts vs. the No. 1 seed juggernaut.
LeBron James. Nikola Jokic. Anthony Davis. Jamal Murray. Austin Reaves. Michael Porter Jr. D’Angelo Russell. Aaron Gordon.
Lakers. Nuggets. Western Conference Finals.
NBA history says the Lakers always win when they get here. The Lakers are 78-44 all-time in the conference finals. The Nuggets are 6-16 in the conference finals.
Maybe this is a new and different Nuggets team. Maybe this is an exceptional seventh seed. Maybe this is LeBron’s last great title run. Maybe this is Davis’ time to reassert himself at the apex. Maybe it’s Joker’s time.
Well, we’ll find out.
Let’s bet the Lakers vs. Nuggets Western Conference finals.
The Most Important Thing: Anthony Davis vs. Nikola Jokic
So much of this series is like an equation — where you can simplify things on either side — but it keeps coming back to this:
If the best player in the series is AD, the Lakers probably win.
If the best player in the series is Jokic, the Nuggets probably win.
Davis is the best defensive player left in the playoffs. Bam Adebayo is up there. Marcus Smart is on the list most years. But Davis is on another level.
He switched onto Stephen Curry. He intimidated the Warriors so much that they stopped driving inside.
He blocks shots, not with athleticism and positioning, but by virtue of having arms longer than aircraft wings. (He also blocks shots with athleticism and positioning.)
He completely disrupts possessions.
Jokic and the Nuggets’ offense have not faced a player who can wreck possessions like this.
Davis and the Lakers have also not faced anything in these playoffs like what Jokic can do to shape the game.
He finishes through brutal contests that make the difficulty level so high that the shot probability is infinitesimal, and he just slips it through the basket like he’s weaving.
He’s shooting 63% in the restricted area and 57% in the paint. His floater is butter. His fadeaway jumper is consistent. He can hit from distance (shooting 48% from 3).
But the scoring is just a fraction of what he does. He can bring the ball up the floor and play point guard. He can run dribble handoffs. He’s obviously the best passer in the league.
If you bring help on him, in the post or in the pick-and-roll, he’ll make you pay — and not just with the obvious kick, but with the second and third sequences.
Can Davis impact him enough to drag the offensive efficiency down to give the Lakers’ lesser offense a chance to catch up? Can Davis dominate offensively with jumpers — which, when he’s hitting them, he’s unstoppable — to counter his production?
More important than the numbers is this: can the Lakers win the Davis minutes vs. Jokic?
- Against the Timberwolves, the Nuggets were +16 with Jokic on the floor vs. Anthony Edwards.
- Against the Suns, the Nuggets were +74 in the minutes with Jokic on the floor vs. Devin Booker.
- Against the Grizzlies, the Lakers were +47 with Davis on the floor vs. Ja Morant.
- Against the Warriors, the Lakers were, incredibly, +17 with Davis on the floor vs. Curry. (No one ever beats the Warriors in the Curry minutes.)
In the regular season, the Nuggets were +25 in the minutes with Jokic on the floor vs. Davis. (This is not that Lakers team, and this is not the regular season.)
If Davis averages 30 and 13, the Lakers can absolutely win this series. If Davis’ defense is enough to make Jokic look mortal, the Lakers can absolutely win this series.
If Jokic is Jokic, and Davis is Davis — who vacillates between great and “eh” game to game — Denver will make the Finals.
The Pendulum: D’Angelo Russell & Aaron Gordon
Usually this section is one player, but this series deserves and demands two.
The Warriors never made the Lakers pay for playing Russell. Russell finished with a +1.9 net rating on-court; they won the Russell minutes. That would’ve been unheard of in any other Warriors playoff run.
Russell, to his credit, made 3s, leaners and floaters to counterbalance his defense, and the Lakers collectively made up for his defensive shortcomings.
The Lakers will hide Russell on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to keep him out of pick-and-roll action.
The Nuggets don’t run a lot of guard-guard pick-and-rolls to get the right switches. But if the Nuggets can find a way to take advantage of him — either by moving KCP off-ball or involving him in dribble handoffs — they can make it difficult for the Lakers to keep him on the floor.
If the Nuggets play him off the court, the Lakers lose a major offensive weapon, and then the Lakers will struggle to keep up with Denver’s offensive floor, which is very high.
On the other end, will the Nuggets blitz Russell like they did Booker and Kevin Durant? Russell is good against drop coverage, and if the Nuggets don’t commit, he can score.
Any sequence where Russell is matched on Murray will see him in pick-and-rolls, and it’s likely to end badly, at least in terms of the quality of shot.
With Gordon, the Lakers are going to dare him. The Suns planned on that to start their series, and Gordon made them pay. Davis may take the Gordon assignment at times, maybe even to start, and roam off him.
Can Gordon hit enough 3s from the outside to keep the Lakers honest?
When James guards Gordon, he has a tendency to over help from the corners in pick-and-rolls. That opens up cuts for Gordon, where he’s most dangerous.
Gordon has improved his game this season, in part by playing more physical inside. But with Davis roaming, that gets tougher.
The Lakers are one of the best teams in the playoffs when it comes to defending the restricted area and the best in the paint (non-restricted area).
Can Gordon find ways to contribute to not allowing the Lakers to swarm the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll?
The Mirage: One of These Teams’ Resumes is Not That Good
The Lakers faced the No. 2 Grizzlies and the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who had never lost a Western Conference playoff series.
The Nuggets faced the Timberwolves, a pretty boilerplate “pretty good, not great” No. 8 seed. Then they faced the Phoenix Suns, with Devin Booker on an all-time heater and Kevin Durant. The Suns were missing two starters by the end of the series and had no depth, though.
The Lakers look like they faced a tougher road, and they should have; they were the No. 7 seed.
Denver earned an easier path and still wound up facing the West favorite and dispatching them in six games.
The Grizzlies were a bad half-court offensive team all year; we talked about that constantly on the Buckets podcast.
They were missing Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, meaning the Grizzlies couldn’t play big or small in their best lineups. They were spiraling in terms of team chemistry for a lot of reasons and had a low offensive floor.
The Warriors are the interesting one. Their reputation demands respect. And the Lakers beat them in less than seven games.
But the Warriors were a team that A) couldn’t win on the road all year (they were one of the worst road teams in NBA playoff history), B) had a middle-of-the-road offensive rating all season, and C) had no depth.
I bet the Warriors to win that series. I banked on the pedigree and the math edge from 3-point range, and then … the Warriors missed everything.
The Lakers have proven they’re better than the expectation and the market for the last eight weeks.
Meanwhile, on the Nuggets’ side, the Suns had no depth. None. They were throwing darts at the board. T.J. Warren. Terrence Ross. Landry Shamet. Damion Lee. Jock Landale.
They gave up too much in the KD trade to have the roster you need to beat the Nuggets.
And Durant was a shell of himself. If it weren’t for Booker going off on 80% shooting in Games 3 and 4, that might’ve been a sweep.
The Wolves are what’s interesting. They were tough and competitive, but they lost Jaden McDaniels and Naz Reid. Karl-Anthony Towns had been back less than a month. They barely knew how to play together, and they still put up a little bit of a fight.
What I’m trying to get at here is that either the Nuggets didn’t really face anyone and are going to get punched in the mouth by this battle-tested Lakers team, or the Lakers have looked better than they actually are vs. two teams facing major overhauls this summer and just happened to find themselves in the right spot at the right time.
Maybe both. Maybe neither. Maybe these are the best two teams in the conference. But it’s interesting to wonder which team’s dominance has been more “real” going into this matchup.
Odds & Ends
- Reaves plays stagger minutes. The Nuggets’ bench has been the vulnerable point throughout the season, even in the playoffs. If he has a big series, he can win those minutes and make Jokic’s margin for error much lower.
- LeBron staggers with those second-unit minutes as well. Does Jeff Green guard him? That’s not going to go well. Does Gordon? Who takes on Wenyen Gabriel? Do the Lakers look at their other bigs?
- Foul trouble. Foul trouble. Foul trouble. The Lakers are a foul-drawing machine. If Jokic picks up fouls guarding AD, Denver is doomed in any game that happens.
- If Gordon gets in foul trouble guarding LeBron, the Nuggets don’t have alternatives. If Reaves is grifting free throws, that slows down the Denver offense and helps the Lakers keep connection.
- Speaking of slowing down, the Lakers are elite in transition on offense. The Nuggets’ biggest weakness is transition defense. They’ve been better in the playoffs, but it’s a real concern. The Lakers haven’t caused a lot of turnovers, even against the turnover-prone Warriors, but if they do in this series, it tilts things dramatically.
- I have no idea what happens with Porter in this series. None. If LeBron hunts him on switches in pick-and-roll, can he hold up? He’s been much better defensively in one-on-one situations than expected this season. He’s tall and long, but James is another level of beast.
- Offensively, how do the Lakers guard him; will they stay glued as Phoenix did, or bring more help?
- The Lakers may try putting Jarred Vanderbilt on Jokic, fronting in the post, with Davis on the backside. That worked throughout the regular season against Denver, including when the Sixers did it with Tucker vs. Jokic and Joel Embiid on the backside.
- If Vanderbilt’s offense won’t hold up, the Lakers will go to Dennis Schroder-D’Lo-Reaves with James and Davis. That would make MPJ a bigger pressure point because he should be able to shoot over Reaves.
- The non-Davis minutes have been rough offensively in the playoffs, with a 98 offensive rating. If Davis picks up foul trouble, the Lakers’ offense will not be able to compete.
- At the same time, the Lakers have proven they have a lot more options to throw at their problems than Denver. Denver has eight players in their rotation, and if it was going to add anyone (Peyton Watson, Zeke Nnaji, Vlatko Cancar, DeAndre Jordan), they would have tried it in Game 5 vs. Phoenix.
- The Lakers, on the other hand, can go to Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker IV or Gabriel. They can keep rotating guys around James and Davis to find something that works. The Nuggets need the formula to work because they haven’t prepped more guys to be ready.
The Bets: Nikola Jokic WCF MVP, Nuggets -1.5 Games
The Jokic bet is basically just a way to bet the Nuggets series price at a smaller number. There’s no scenario that I can see Jokic not being the best player on the Nuggets when they win the series, and no scenario where the Nuggets don’t win the series and any other player on Denver wins the award.
Denver is the better team. It has been better all year.
Even the run the Lakers made post-All-Star break came at a wonky time in the schedule.
The Nuggets have dominated two series. Their offensive floor is so high that even if you do well vs. their first and second option, they have three, four or five more options to go to. Their defense is underrated, and their mentality is right.
The Nuggets have never beaten the Lakers in a playoff series. History says that the Lakers win this series. Teams like the Nuggets don’t beat the Lakers. The Lakers are the most profitable title futures team of the past 23 years.
But it’s important to note how often the Lakers were favored in those years. The last time the Lakers won a series where they weren’t favored was in 2004 vs. the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals.
LeBron has won the following series as a dog:
- 2018 Raptors, Conference Semis
- 2016 Warriors, Finals
- 2012 Thunder, Finals
- 2007, Pistons, Conference Finals
That’s not to say he can’t do it. The Lakers are live in this series, especially if Davis dominates defensively and LeBron has a throwback series.
But Denver has physicality with Gordon, KCP and Bruce Brown. They have shotmakers in Murray, KCP and MPJ. They are well-coached. And they have one of the best players in the league.
I don’t feel awesome about this; I’m not excited to bet it. But I can’t reach any conclusion but that Denver should take Games 1 and 2 at home — where it has been dominant — and one of Games 4 and 5, before clinching in Game 6 in L.A.
I’ll be looking at Nuggets 3-point prop overs, Hachimura and Reaves combo prop overs, and I’ll be leaning towards overs in this series.
If you want to bet the Lakers? Lakers to win Game 1 and Lakers to win the series is +280.
If the Lakers steal home court, the Nuggets’ entire script goes in the toilet. They haven’t had to play from behind in a series yet. The Nuggets are worse on the road than the Lakers have been in the playoffs.
I’ll bet on Jokic, though. I’ll bet on a season where the Nuggets have done everything to set up this moment, and I’ll bet against history and the narrative.
But I won’t feel good about it.
Picks: Nikola Jokic WCF MVP (-125 BetMGM) | Nuggets -1.5 Games (+160)
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