Michael Malone and LeBron James experienced their first conference finals together 13 years ago: the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ stunning 2007 upset of the Detroit Pistons in which James was just 22 and Malone was an assistant coach.
Their faces aren’t quite as smooth now and they have less hair, but their presence together in the conference finals in 2020 is just as unexpected.
Now a veteran coach known for his iron will, Malone has his Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals after a breathtaking comeback to knock out the favorite LA Clippers. Now he gets to be with James again, this time trying to figure out how the heck to stop him.
For the past year or so, James and the Los Angeles Lakers had been thinking about a playoff series with the Clippers. It was supposed to be a final battle in an arms race of superstars and the NBA’s first hallway series. It was supposed to be about score-settling, bragging rights and legacy building.
All of that has come apart with the Nuggets wielding a wrecking ball as they’ve reached the conference finals for the first time since 2009.
The Lakers now vault to massive title favorites with the two teams they expected to have to beat to get the Larry O’Brien Trophy — the Clippers and No. 1 overall seeded Milwaukee Bucks — both upset in the second round.
No matter how the Eastern Conference finals plays out, the Lakers now have the star power and experience advantage of the remaining teams left. They are also hot, having gone 8-2 in blitzing through the first two rounds and have the look of the fire-breathing championship contender that was largely absent from the Clippers and Bucks.
James is playing in his 11th conference finals, a run that dates back to the time when Malone’s hair was dark and many of the Nuggets, the youngest team in the playoffs, were in elementary school.
This matchup also tilts nicely toward Anthony Davis, playing in his first conference finals. Though Nuggets star Nikola Jokic is a central reason his team has overcome two 3-1 deficits, Davis won the matchup handily during the regular season as the Lakers went 3-1, including two wins in Denver.
The Nuggets, of course, will not care about that. They had their first charter flight home booked for Aug. 26. That one was canceled. Delta has rebooked that same charter five more times for them, and five more times it has been wiped off the books.
Nonetheless, the path to a fourth title has never been better paved for James. And he’s not one who often passes on opportunities.
— Brian Windhorst
How the Lakers got here
2019-20 record: 52-19 overall
Offensive rating: 111.7 (11th) | Playoffs: 114.4 (third)
Defensive rating: 106.1 (third) | Playoffs: 105.4 (third)
The Lakers team that sleepwalked through the seeding round, going 3-5 while presenting an on-court product that vacillated between disinterest and disaster, is not the same Lakers team that went 8-2 through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
No, the team that earned the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals since 2010 was a defensive menace, first putting the clamps on bubble MVP Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers, then keeping the pressure on the league’s leading scorer, James Harden, and the Rockets.
“I mean, you hear it all the time, but defense wins championships,” Davis said after L.A.’s Game 5 closeout victory over Houston. “Our biggest focus is going to be locking in defensively and letting that lead the way.”
Davis, who is averaging 27.6 points per game in these playoffs on 58.6% shooting from the field and 39.1% shooting from 3 with 10.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, has had James (26.6 points on 55.3% from the field and 37.1% from 3, with 10.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per game) right alongside him.
But L.A.’s success hasn’t just been about the duo’s domination. During both series the Lakers fell behind 0-1 only to win four in a row to advance, as several L.A. role players — Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris and Alex Caruso among them — battled through rough spots to find a rhythm.
— Dave McMenamin
How the Nuggets got here
2019-20 record: 46-27 overall
Offensive rating: 112.6 (fifth) | Playoffs: 112.5 (fifth)
Defensive rating: 110.4 (16th) | Playoffs: 115.3 (12th)
Round 1: Def. Utah Jazz 4-3
Round 2: Def. LA Clippers 4-3
No one expected the Nuggets to be the team standing opposite the Lakers. And certainly no one saw the Nuggets getting to the Western Conference finals in the manner in which they did.
Michael Malone’s team got here through resilience, becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit twice in one postseason.
Doing that against the Jazz is one thing. To stun the Clippers by overcoming deficits of 16 and 19 in Games 5 and 6 followed by a second-half surge to win Game 7, the Nuggets proved they’re no fluke.
Jamal Murray was unstoppable in the first round, scoring 50 points twice against the Jazz. But Jokic was the versatile force the Clippers couldn’t get a handle on in the semis. Jokic buried 3-pointers, forced the Clippers to double in the post, and he was a monster on the glass.
For the Nuggets to have a chance against the Lakers, Jokic will have to play like the best big man in the NBA. Michael Porter Jr. will have to be a factor with his perimeter shooting and rebounding. Gary Harris was a defensive force for Denver and his offense will also be needed against a stellar Lakers defensive group.
Perhaps Will Barton, who has been out the entire postseason, could return to the bubble at some point. But the Nuggets have gotten this far without Barton and they arrive to the conference finals believing in themselves even if many others have not.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Series key: Jokic and Murray need to be heroes (again)
The Nuggets pulled off two incredibly unlikely comebacks on the shoulders of Jokic and Murray. For the Nuggets to have the chance at making the Finals, they will need their star duo to show out again.
Unfortunately, the Lakers were strong at defending both players this season and have done very well defending analogous players this offseason. Led by centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the Lakers held Jokic to 16.3 points (48.9% shooting) with 5.8 rebounds per game in four regular-season meetings, three of which were Lakers victories. In this postseason, the Lakers held another skilled 7-footer and Jokic’s former teammate, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, well under expectation: 14.2 points per game on 43.9% shooting.
Murray had a bit more success against the Lakers during the regular season, at least matching his usual numbers with averages of 18.5 points on 47.6% shooting, though only a paltry 15.8% from deep in their matchups. However, this postseason the Lakers have faced a plethora of elite scoring lead guards in Harden, Russell Westbrook and Lillard. Harden’s scoring average dropped by 4.9 points, Westbrook’s by 7.4 and Lillard’s by 5.7 in their playoff matchups with the Lakers compared to the regular season.
The Lakers’ perimeter defense, like the rest of their attack, is anchored by Davis and James. Davis has contested 102 shots (32 3-pointers) as the primary or help defender this postseason, and opponents are shooting 30% on his challenges. James has really clamped down late in games, holding opponents to 27% shooting from the field as their primary defender in the fourth quarter of playoff games.
For the Nuggets to win, they need Jokic and Murray to find a way to outproduce expectations in their matchups against a strong Lakers defense.
— André Snellings
Series key: The Lakers might be feasting in the paint
The Nuggets got here in part by shoring up the rim protection that has been a weakness for them all season. The Lakers will test that, unlike the first two opponents Denver faced.
With a non-shot-blocker at center in Jokic, the Nuggets have traditionally struggled to keep opponents from scoring in the restricted area. During the 2019-20 regular season, opponents shot 65% in that range according to NBA Advanced Stats, 14th of the 16 playoff teams. (Denver was ahead of the Houston Rockets and, surprisingly, the Miami Heat.)
The Nuggets’ rim protection has improved in the playoffs. They’ve held opponents to 62.5% in the restricted area, better than league average (63%). Jerami Grant has provided atypical rim protection for a small forward, blocking a team-high 1.1 shots per game.
At the same time, Denver hasn’t really met an opponent ideally suited to taking advantage of the team’s defensive underbelly. Both the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers were below league average in terms of scoring frequency in the restricted area, with the Clippers’ rim attacks further compromised by Montrezl Harrell‘s ineffectiveness while working his way back in shape.
The Lakers are a different story entirely. Their 22.0 field goals per game in the restricted area during the regular season lapped the field. And in the playoffs, when rim protection typically improves, the Lakers have looked as if they’re playing an entirely different sport than the rest of the NBA. Their 21.3 field goals per game in the restricted area are nearly five more than any other team has averaged.
Both of the Lakers’ superstars will put pressure on the Nuggets’ rim protection. LeBron does so by powering his way to the rim off the dribble, and Davis is an above-the-rim finisher off the pick-and-roll game and in transition. They rank third and fourth, respectively, in field goals per game in the restricted area during the playoffs. James and Davis alone have combined for more scores in the restricted area in the playoffs (10.8 per game) than the Orlando Magic averaged as a team in the first round (8.2).
Worse yet for Denver, the Lakers showed in winning the season series 3-1 how they can get to the rim against the Nuggets. Their 23.5 makes per game in the restricted area were the second most Denver gave up against any opponent. So protecting the rim will be a challenge for the Nuggets.
— Kevin Pelton