This year’s NBA Western Conference finals featured a matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers. Both teams have shown dominance throughout the postseason as they aim for a trip to the NBA finals, with the Lakers steamrolling their opponents from the beginning of their series and the Nuggets winning both of their playoff series after being down 3-1, including an upset over championship favorite Los Angeles Clippers. This matchup featured two of the best duo’s in basketball going head-to-head.
On the Lakers, there’s the ageless wonder in forward LeBron James, who is well complemented by athletically gifted center Anthony Davis. James is a veteran to these types of series, appearing in the NBA Finals nine times throughout his career. During the regular season, James averaged 25 points, 7.8 assists, and 10.2 rebounds. Davis, meanwhile, is in his first trip deep into the playoffs, as his former team, the New Orleans Pelicans, never surrounded him with enough talent to progress beyond the first round. Davis has been a large factor in the Lakers’ success throughout the season, averaging 26.1 points and 9.3 rebounds.
The Nuggets’ duo comprises center Nikola Jokic and emergent shooting guard Jamal Murray. Jokic has established himself as the best passing center of his generation, if not of all time, as he leads the Nuggets on offense while also locking down opposing centers on defense. He has averaged 19.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, and seven assists while also being one of the league’s top defenders at seven feet tall. Murray, at just 23, had a breakout season averaging 18.5 points, four rebounds and 4.8 assists. His dominance really took off in the postseason, where he’s hit multiple game-winning shots and 50-point games.
During Game 1, the Lakers took an early lead and entered the half with an 11-point advantage. The Nuggets had a tough third quarter and couldn’t seem to find an answer to the tandem of James and Davis defensively, allowing the Lakers to go up by 24 points. Although Denver continued to fight, Los Angeles had gained an insurmountable lead, cruising to the final buzzer and a 114-126 victory. During the outing, the Lakers continued to dominate the paint, scoring 54 points inside.
At the start of Game 2, it appeared the Lakers were going to continue their dominance, as they went up 9 points in the first quarter while only allowing the Nuggets to score 21 in the quarter. As in Game 1, going into the half the Nuggets found themselves in the shadow of another 10-point deficit. However, whoever gave the motivational speech in Denver’s locker room gave it well, and the Nuggets looked like a new team in the second half, dominating on both ends of the court. With time winding down, the Nuggets managed to level the score with under two minutes to play. Davis and Jokic brought the game down to a battle of the big men, scoring the last 10 points for both of their teams. With 20 seconds left, Jokic hit a tough shot over Davis, giving the Nuggets a one-point advantage. With the last couple seconds on the clock, the ball was inbounded to Davis, who hit a 3-point contested buzzer-beater to finish off the thrilling game. During the loss, Jokic put up 30 points and nine assists to complement Murray’s 25 points. On the Lakers side, James scored 26 points while grabbing 11 rebounds, while Davis dominated offensively with 31 points in addition to grabbing nine rebounds. The root of the loss for the Nuggets was their lack of rebounding, as they only hauled in 31 all night.
Down 0-2, the Nuggets entered a must-win Game 3 with an impetus and it showed from the start. Both teams traded shots in the first quarter, but the second quarter was all Murray as he led the Nuggets to a 10-point lead at the half. The first two games made it clear to Denver that they needed help from their supporting cast if Jokic and Murray were to take down the Lakers, and forward Jeremi Grant stepped up massively in Game 3, scoring 26 points. The Nuggets kept their foot on the gas, never allowing the Lakers to come back from this deficit and winning their first and only game of the series 114-106.
James and company have only lost one game in each series they’ve played throughout the 2020 playoffs, and this trend continued into Game 4. Davis and James combined for 60 points, blowing the Nuggets out of the water from the beginning, while four other Lakers scored double digits on the night. Though the Nuggets had better shooting percentages from all portions of the court, including the free-throw line, the Lakers continued to win in the smaller details, such as combining for nine steals as a team, while also besting the Nuggets in rebounding once again. Denver narrowly outscored the Lakers in the paint but drew more penalties on defense, providing the Lakers with 35 free throw attempts to just 23 of their own. Los Angeles cruised to victory once again, with the buzzer sounding on a 114-108 victory.
This was not even remotely close to the first time Denver entered Game 5 of a playoff series down 3-1, having overcome that exact deficit in their two prior series against the Clippers and Utah Jazz. What those teams didn’t have, and what no team appears to have, is a player who doubles as a coach on the floor quite like James. The 16-time All-Star dominated the court in the final contest of the series, putting up 38 points, 16 rebound and 10 assists, all while relentlessly attacking the basket and dishing the ball out to perimeter players. Defensive stats told the tale for Los Angeles once again, as they amassed eight blocks and six steals as a team, while additionally knocking down 54% of their field goal attempts. The Lakers will get some rest as the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat close out their series in the Eastern Conference finals, allowing James to prepare for his 10th finals appearance and hopefully his fourth championship. James sits only behind Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Sam Jones and Kareem Abdul-Jabar in finals appearances by a single player, and it doesn’t appear that he will be slowing down anytime soon.