Mile High Bubble Continues: Nuggets’ Western Conference Finals chances

By Daniel Paiz

For those of you who continue to rock the blue and gold, this is a heart-racing version of Groundhog Day. In round one against Utah it came down to the wire. In the conference semi-finals another challenge arose, and Denver made history against Los Angeles as the only team in NBA history to return from the 3-1 brink of elimination twice in the same postseason. Now network pundits and online chatrooms alike buzz about how the Lakers are going to win this series.

Perhaps there needs to be a case made for how this series might go.

History happens for a reason

Comparing the game changers

The Denver Nuggets are a unified team that gets better as they keep plugging along. Frankly, it’s short-sighted and arrogant to dismiss this team. Sure, you can talk about all the accolades LeBron James has earned and there’s no denying he’s a game changer. Anthony Davis is a tough big to compete against. The bench has come up consistently when Davis or the starters decide to take a break from a game. The good news is, it isn’t about franchise histories in this series, but rather how each squad will respond.

Utah and Los Angeles both showed they couldn’t handle Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, particularly when they set up various pick and rolls. High picks make Jokic a quarterback, dropping catches at will after making his defensive reads. Murray ignites at certain times, seemingly coinciding with when the opponent is in a dry spell. Denver needs to keep moving the ball around and providing Jokic with options; it’s likely the Lakers use Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins and their 12 fouls available to slow him down.

The Lakers are in a similar situation with James and Davis. Both players pretty much win every postseason game when they both score 25 or more points. In their Houston series, either they both needed 25+ to win, or they needed five players to score double digits. The games where James had less than 20 were made up for by the rest of the team.

For Denver, it might be riskier route to make James and Davis singlehandedly beat you. In a way that helps Denver on defense when the other Lakers on the floor watch and dish to these two; when Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Markieff Morris and Rajon Rondo all hit double digits, it’s even worse than LeBron getting 40 plus a night.

Role players give slight edge

Los Angeles actually has more pressure than Denver does when it comes to the other guys contributing. Nuggets head coach Mike Malone knows you slow down guys like James and Davis, and hope to force another player to get the hot hand. Kuzma might be that player, Caruso could add a few shots, and who truly knows which Rondo shows up.

The Nuggets of course will be looking for support from Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris on the offensive end. Mason Plumlee will continue to prove invaluable when it comes to hustle and irritating the Lakers’ big men. Gary Harris and Jerami Grant will both need to maintain their defensive efforts and find buckets on the other end. As much as Rondo is a mystery for LA, Paul Millsap needs that Game 6 Western semi-finals motivation throughout this one.

How the coaches measure up

Coach Malone will need to keep that consistent switching of Porter Jr. and Torrey Craig; it seems it might have more of an impact on the second half. Keeping Murray in longer also seems to be a necessary spark. One thing that I’d suggest is throwing in Bol Bol a few times to see if he can cause disruptions around the rim; his inexperience might be cancelled out by the matchup problems he creates. His effort might surprise some as well.

Coach Frank Vogel has been here before on the Eastern Conference side of the postseason. With several solid Indiana Pacers squads, his teams couldn’t put the series away. Vogel has to find that balance of disrupting Denver’s main duo while also keeping a rhythm going. The pressure is on Vogel more than Malone due to expectations.

Final verdict

This series is one we’ve all watched before, but with slightly different roles for Denver’s opponent. The pressure is truly on the Lakers to return the franchise to the Finals, while Denver is supposed to be happy to have made it this far. That’s the thing, the goal isn’t any of the preceding rounds. It’s not about making league history in terms of how a team rallies when down. Instead it’s about earning the Mile High City its first-ever Larry O’Brien championship trophy.

In addition to matchups and looking into who needs to do what, it’s also about the intangibles. In the semifinals for the Lakers, they won when they routinely turned the ball over less, grabbed more rebounds, and shot at a higher field goal percentage. When they lost, they usually had more turnovers. The closer you get to a title, the more important a team’s fundamental skill set is.

Sure, the Nuggets have a very young core to build sustained success around. However, that also means they plan to go further, and expect nothing beyond putting forth their best effort. Denver has the shot to get this team to the NBA Finals. What matter’s here is, the continued effort. With the resilience earned this far, the effort throughout could be the difference between a championship and a long flight home.

The Denver Nuggets, much like the other series this postseason, win this matchup in seven games. There’s no other prediction more fitting.

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