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Saturday, May 13, 2023

Denver Versus L.A. Lakers Preview

Western Conference Finals

#1 Denver (53-29) vs. #7 L.A. Lakers (43-39)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

L.A. can win if…LeBron James and Anthony Davis continue to attack the paint at both ends of the court. James and Davis pummeled the undersized Golden State Warriors, culminating in a 122-101 game six victory to end their second round series. After leading the Lakers to the 2020 NBA title in the Orlando "bubble," James and Davis led the Lakers to a first round loss in 2021, the Draft Lottery in 2022, and the seventh best regular season record in the Western Conference in 2023. The Lakers needed overtime to survive their Play-In Tournament game versus the shorthanded Minnesota Timberwolves last month, but James and Davis played very well in the first round against the injury-depleted Memphis Grizzlies before dispatching the Warriors.

Will James and Davis continue to attack the paint versus a Denver team that is bigger, deeper, and more cohesive than the Lakers' first two playoff opponents? If James and Davis continue to attack the paint, will the Nuggets be able to slow them down? Can Davis individually or the Lakers collectively limit Nikola Jokic's productivity and efficiency? The outcome of this playoff series will be decided by the answers to those three questions, because this series will be determined in the paint by the play of James and Davis for the Lakers versus the play of Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. for the Nuggets.

James is averaging 23.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 5.3 apg, and 1.3 bpg in the 2023 playoffs. He is posting the third best rebounding numbers of his playoff career, and his blocked shots average is the second best of his playoff career. Those statistics are remarkable for a 38 year old player in his 20th pro campaign--but they are also necessary: if James reverts to jacking up too many three pointers and playing indifferent defense, then the Lakers have no chance.

Davis is averaging 21.2 ppg, 14.7 rpg, 3.3 bpg, and 1.4 spg in the 2023 playoffs. He ranks second on the team in scoring and field goal percentage (.530), and first in rebounding, blocked shots, and steals. Davis is posting playoff career-high numbers in rebounding and blocked shots.

Austin Reaves has emerged as the team's third best two-way player, averaging 15.4 ppg in the playoffs while also making his presence felt defensively. D'Angelo Russell is averaging 15.7 ppg in the playoffs while ranking second on the team in assists (5.0 apg) behind James. Rui Hachimura is averaging 11.2 ppg in the playoffs while leading the team in field goal percentage (.570). Lonnie Walker IV is only averaging 6.8 ppg in the playoffs, but he has played his way back into the rotation after saving the Lakers in the fourth quarter of game four versus Golden State.

How important is three point shooting to the Lakers' success? The Lakers rank 11th (out of 16 teams) in three point shooting percentage during the 2023 playoffs, and they rank 13th in three point field goal attempts. Anyone who suggests that the Lakers are winning now because they have great three point shooting is, quite frankly, a person who is not watching the games and not aware of the pertinent statistics. When the Lakers won the 2020 "bubble" title, they ranked 12th in playoff three point field goal percentage and 11th in playoff three point field goal attempts. They did not have "lasers" in 2020 and they don't have "lasers" now.

Denver will win because…Nikola Jokic has been the best, most consistent, and most dominant player in the 2023 playoffs. Perhaps we are seeing shades of Hakeem Olajuwon's 1995 playoff performance after he finished second to David Robinson in the regular season MVP voting. Of course, Olajuwon had already won an NBA title by that point, while Jokic is still seeking his first NBA Finals appearance, but Jokic's level of play in the 2023 playoffs is leaving little doubt about who is the NBA's best player right now.

In the Nuggets' 4-2 second round win versus the Phoenix Suns, Jokic tied an NBA record by posting three triple doubles in one series, and he averaged 34.5 ppg, 13.2 rpg, and 10.3 apg while shooting .594 from the field. He scored, rebounded, and shot like prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while putting up assist numbers like prime Magic Johnson! Jokic's overall playoff numbers this season are 30.7 ppg, 12.8 rpg, and 9.7 apg with a .549 field goal percentage. He is exceeding his excellent career playoff averages (27.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 7.0 apg, .525 field goal percentage) in four major categories.

Jokic is transcendentally great, but the Nuggets are not a one man team. Jamal Murray averaged 24.8 ppg, 6.5 apg, and 4.8 rpg versus the Suns, and four other Nuggets each averaged double figures in scoring while shooting at least .453 from the field (Bruce Brown, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope).

The Nuggets are not considered to be a great defensive team, but they held the Suns' high-powered offense to 107 points or less in four of the six games--including the 125-100 game six series-clincher--after the Suns averaged 113.6 ppg during the regular season.

The Nuggets have the best player in the series, they have a deep roster, they have a fine-tuned offense, and their defense is solid enough.

Other things to consider: The Nuggets were a steadily rising team until Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. suffered injuries that caused them to miss a significant amount of playing time in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Now that the Nuggets are finally healthy they appear to be resuming their normal development curve.

The Lakers beat the Nuggets 4-1 in the 2020 Western Conference Finals in the "bubble," but that year Jokic averaged 19.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 7.0 apg during the regular season: he was a two-time All-Star but not yet a two-time regular season MVP.

If the Lakers play the right way by attacking the paint then they can pose more challenges for the Nuggets than their first two playoff opponents did, but Jokic will be the best player in the Western Conference Finals, and Denver will defeat L.A. in six games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 PM



At Saturday, May 13, 2023 6:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Lakers will win in 6

Lakers are a better offensive team than the suns

And the warriors are a better defensive team than the nuggets

It gonna come down to role players

I trust

Reaves, dlo, Schroeder, rui,lonnie walker

Over Gordon,mjp,kcp,Bruce brown, Jeff green

Lakers role players are mentally tough

But the real point is jokic isn't a transcendent or all time great

He been in the league 9 years no rings David

MVP and first team all NBA dropped over recent time slightly

Jokic in Kobe Bron Shaq era

Would of never won a MVP

It not a all time great

Unless u lead a team to a championship


The last 23 years those are the players who are 1 option on title teams

Those are all top 30 players all time

Until joker does it

He simply a great player

Idc about or first team all NBA

When they put solid guards like shai gil Alexander on first team

In 2023

The measurement leading team to a ring

At Saturday, May 13, 2023 7:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your comment is unintentional comedy. LeBron did not win his first ring until his ninth season, one season after he fled to Miami to build a super team that got embarrassed in the 2011 Finals as Jason Terry and J.J. Barea regularly outplayed LeBron in the fourth quarter of games in that series. Do you retract all the comments that you made here about LeBron's greatness before he won the 2012 championship?

Jokic has not fled Denver to build a super team, so maybe he wins a ring in year nine to tie LeBron or maybe he doesn't. We'll see.

Jokic, without another All-NBA player by his side, just outdueled Booker and Durant, but he's not transcendent? OK, sure.

You love the Lakers' role players, but I noticed that you left out Vanderbilt and Beasley. I thought that you loved the Westbrook trade, so what about those guys? Oh, yeah--they have both been benched by Coach Ham!

At Saturday, May 13, 2023 8:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These Lakers are the most officiating-dependent team I can remember since the Harden/Paul Rockets. It is partly to their credit, in that they attack in a way that gets them to the line in most games, but also their vulnerability, as when the whistle is not blowing (even if they are attacking in aggressive fashion) it not only hamstrings their offense but opens up their greatest weakness, namely transition defense.

If the Lakers can enjoy even half the free-throw advantage they had against the Warriors in the last round, they can and will win this series. The Lakers doubled the Warriors in FTAs (26.6 per game to 13.3 per game), the first time that had happened in a playoff series since Lebron's 2009 Cavs did it to the Pistons. To put that margin in perspective, in the infamous 2002 WCF Game 6 against Sacramento, the Lakers had 15 more FTAs than the Kings. They nearly averaged that margin against Golden State (and as great as Lebron and AD are, neither has ever drawn FTAs at nearly the rate Shaq did, and only at Lebron's long-ago apex was he competitive in that area with Kobe). Even Shaq's career high in FTAs (13.1) is lower than the margin the Lakers enjoyed! They had a whole Shaq of extra FTAs over the Warriors! And without the usual downside of needing Shaq to try and shoot them, no less.

The margin was even more dramatic in their wins, where they shot over 19 more FTA per game. In their losses, they shot 0.5 more free throws per game. Some of that margin may fairly be attributed to the Lakers playing more aggressively, but part of it is also the officiating; I do not think the Lakers played 19 FTAs per game more aggressively in their wins than their losses, though. That is over triple the gap between the highest FTA average in the league and the lowest (who do happen to be the Lakers and Warriors, naturally).

I don't know how to look it up, but I feel comfortable assuming that is probably one of the all-time greatest win/loss splits for Free Throw margin in playoff history. Miami vs. Dallas in '06 strikes me as the one series that would likely be even more dramatic.

This is not to suggest the series was "fixed," only to note that the Lakers look like world-beaters when the game is called one way, and pedestrian when it is called the other, a dichotomy I expect to be only more dramatic against the Nuggets who are a lethal transition team, but who also cannot afford the kind of foul-trouble plagued evenings on Nikola Jokic the Warriors can sometimes survive for Draymond Green.

The Nuggets are a better team than the Warriors but their heavy reliance on Jokic specifically makes them more vulnerable to interior foul trouble than GSW. I suspect they will do very well in games where the FTA margin is in single digits, but I don't think they have much of a shot if LA is able to replicate the 20ish FTA advantage they had in their wins against GSW.

At Saturday, May 13, 2023 11:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I would say that Harden and Paul flop a lot more often and a lot more egregiously than anyone on the Lakers. You are correct that the Lakers shoot a lot of free throws, but that has been true all season long and is not something that suddenly happened in the playoffs. The Warriors also are poor at drawing fouls, so the disparity during the series is not as surprising as it may seem at first glance. I think that the Warriors made a mistake by going small. In general, I am not a fan of going small unless (1) your bigs are all injured and you have no choice, (2) your bigs are all terrible (or markedly worse than your smalls), or (3) foul trouble forces your hand. A smart big team is going to destroy a small team unless that small team is much more skilled; five (healthy) Chris Pauls would destroy five 6-10 dudes from the YMCA, but five Chris Pauls will get smoked by five 6-10 dudes that can play. I love Kevin McHale's line a few years ago about how his Celtics would have fared against the Warriors (and, specifically, Draymond Green): "That dude can't grow enough to guard me." With all due respect to old but still productive LeBron and sporadically attentive (and occasionally wheelchair bound) Davis, any of the talented big championship teams from the 1980s (Lakers, Celtics, 76ers, Pistons) would have beaten even the best Warriors teams, and they would have swept the 2022 Warriors.

I expect that the larger Nuggets team can defend without fouling better than the Warriors did. I also think that Jokic will create foul trouble for the Lakers, which could affect the Lakers' aggressiveness at both ends of the court.

I think that different officiating crews officiate differently; this has always been true, but it is more pronounced now, and I wish that the officiating would be more consistent.

Drawing legitimate fouls is an art, but flopping is terrible, and I wish that the NBA would crack down on flopping. I echo everything that Jeff Van Gundy often says on that topic.

At Sunday, May 14, 2023 10:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, that comment about any of the talented big teams from the 80s being able to beat even the best Warriors teams (2017 team which went 16-1 and was a 25 3-pointers night away from sweeping a peak LeBron, Kyrie, Love Cavs team with very good role players) seems a little scandalous when put under further scrutiny.

None of those teams ever had to deal with a team simultaneously having 3 such shooters/offensive threats as KD, Curry and Thompson at the same time but in reverse, the Warriors during their run did face a couple of teams with talented bigs such as Anthony Davis or that OKC team that had a front court of KD, Ibaka and Steven Adams and found away to offset their rebounding disadvantage with shooting.

That 2017 Warriors team is one of the greatest squads ever assembled and played a really cohesive style of basketball akin to the Spurs. The 2018 team started playing more 1-on-1 because KD wanted to have the ball more and this the team was more vulnerable, but that 2017 team did something only matched by the 2001 Lakers and the 1971 Bucks. They deserve a bit more historical consideration then that line.

At Sunday, May 14, 2023 1:00:00 PM, Anonymous Mambavelli said...

The Lakers and Nuggets split the season series. However, the Lakers are much improved since that season split (all the games before February, Lakers missing starters in some of the games).

The Nuggets are a middle of the road defensive team who struggle defending the interior in particular. AD is a whole other animal in comparison to Ayton and doesn't need to but clearly has the ability to outplay Jokic. Indeed, this could be his Hakeem to Jokic' Robinson moment.

Jokic can pull AD from the paint but that means Jokic is away from the paint.

If the Nuggets have any chance they have to protect homecourt the first 2 games.

Phoenix was the only team left that scared me because they have two dominant perimeter players. Denver has a more straightforward approach offensively but in my opinion that plays into the Lakers strength. Ham was tactically impressive in the Golden state series in a way I've never seen from Malone.

At Sunday, May 14, 2023 11:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't find it scandalous to believe that Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish/Kevin McHale would present unsolvable problems in the paint for any version of the Warriors.

I also don't find it scandalous to believe that Cheeks/Toney, Magic/Cooper/Scott, and DJ/Ainge would match up just fine with the Warriors, particularly with HoF big men supporting them in the paint at both ends of the court.

Dr. J regularly dunked on Kareem, McHale, Parish, and numerous other HoF big men. His dunking reel against the Warriors might well have proven to be "scandalous," because the Warriors have no shotblocking. If the series would be played under today's rules when defensive players cannot touch perimeter players, pencil in Dr. J for 30-35 ppg. He averaged over 25 ppg in his NBA Finals career under rules that did not favor him and versus superior competition. His ABA numbers from when he was younger and in a more free-flowing league provide a glimpse of what he would do to the Warriors.

Larry Bird and James Worthy would also do quite well against the Warriors.

The three point shooting capabilities of the 1980s players are vastly underrated, because that was not a major part of the game at the time, but if we are having three point shootouts in playoff series I will take Bird over Curry. Toney would be an absolute terror under today's rules and with license to shoot volume three pointers.

At Sunday, May 14, 2023 11:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Davis and James attack the paint then the Lakers would beat the Suns.

The Nuggets are a much tougher matchup for the Lakers than the Suns or anyone else the Lakers have faced. The Lakers did well down the stretch of the regular season, but that record was padded a bit against tanking teams, teams with injuries, and teams whose playoff positioning was set. When they needed to beat the Clippers to avoid the Play-In Tournament, the Lakers lost. The Lakers barely beat a shorthanded Minnesota team in the Play-In Tournament. The Lakers beat shorthanded Memphis in the first round and undersized G.S. in the second round. It is amazing how the narrative goalposts for the Lakers keep shifting. When LeBron reshuffled the roster several years ago to bring in Davis, this was supposed to be a championship dynasty. The James-Davis Lakers have been eliminated in the first round or earlier more often than they have won championships, but a few regular season wins down the stretch and two playoff series wins are now touted as a huge success. Shouldn't a team with two top 75 players be expected to win at least two playoff series?

Everyone should have someone who loves them as much as many media members love James. James does not need such a soft touch. He is an all-time great player, and being honest about him and his teams is OK and is not "hating."


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