The Denver Nuggets are undoubtedly one of the most formidable teams that will be in the 2023 NBA Playoffs. At 50-24, the Nuggets have the best record in the Western Conference and the third-best record in the league, only behind the Milwaukee Bucks (52-21) and Boston Celtics (51-23).
With two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic having another MVP-worthy season, Denver has no problem relying on their superstar to fill up the box score every night will anchoring the offense. Meanwhile, star forwards Michael Porter Jr. are playing the best basketball of their career and fan favorite Jamal Murray has finally returned to form after recovering from a torn ACL. Their role players — namely Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown — have shined in their 3-and-D roles.
Consequently, there aren’t many teams that they need to be worried about losing to in a playoff series.
Yet, for all of Jokic’s confidence that the Nuggets will advance past the first round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs, the team that they would be facing if the playoffs began today is Denver’s worst matchup of all.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who should be considered the Nuggets’ nightmare matchup in the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
Nuggets’ nightmare seeding scenario, matchup for 2023 NBA Playoffs
Like the Nuggets, the Lakers have had a somewhat top-heavy offense for the past few seasons.
Led by LeBron James, a four-time MVP who seems to defy time itself with his ability to dominate late in his career, L.A. has already won a championship with James leading the franchise. Not coincidentally, their championship run included a 4-1 thrashing of the Nuggets in the 2020 Western Conference Finals.
James, who is playing even better now than he was then, averaged 27.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game on 53.6 percent shooting from the field.
Anthony Davis, the most talented two-way force that James has played with since 13-time All-Star Dwyane Wade, averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting from the field and 33.3 percent shooting from three.
To spare all the gory details, MPJ and Jokic were simply unable to do anything with LeBron and AD.
James is masterful at drawing the switch, this allows him exploit his physical matchups, a major factor in his two decades worth of All-NBA play. Davis, though legitimately criticized at times, is still a three-level scorer as a 6-foot-10 forward-center.
To be clear, both Porter and Joker have grown on the defensive end.
Porter has become both more active and more aware of how to utilize his length to make plays.
Jokic has become more active as well, and better at using his hands to disrupt would-be scorers.
The On-Court Matchup
Nonetheless, the problem that Denver will run into is two-fold.
First, the fact that the Lakers will be starting a physical presence at center in Jarred Vanderbilt.
His screens will be an irritant to Murray, Gordon, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as he frequently frees up space for shooters and slashers. Offensively, he and Mo Bamba’s ability to step out from beyond the arc will force the Nuggets into tough decisions and possibly even tougher rotations.
Secondly, Denver as a whole haven’t still shown themselves unable to stop LeBron and AD.
Aside from an underwhelming performance in their first matchup of the season, James has played well against the Nuggets, averaging 28.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game on 22-43 shooting from the field.
In the two full games Davis played against the Nuggets this season, he’s averaged 22.5 points, 14.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game on 21-37 shooting.
If neither player falls in love with shooting from beyond the arc, which they are wont to do, it could be another quick series for Denver. Not just because both players could elevate their games even further in the playoffs, as they’ve done before. But because the L.A. has also made necessary additions to their team that no amount of adjustments could overcome before.
The Other Guys
D’Angelo Russell has a much better combination of scoring potential, shot-creation ability, and lane penetration than any guard that L.A. has had in the LeBron era. He could beat Murray off-the-dribble consistently, while Dennis Schroder and Austin Reaves could have success against him as well.
Whether Lonnie Walker IV plays more in the playoffs is uncertain but his ability to attack the rim as well as his improvement from beyond the arc make him another cover for a Nuggets team without enough players that can quickly cover ground when moving laterally.
To that point, the lane penetration now could lead to more good things for L.A. than before.
In terms of the team’s new additions, who the Nuggets haven’t had the chance to face while members of the Lakers, D’Lo has had the most success from 3. He’s knocking down 39.5 percent of his 3-point attempts, while Troy Brown Jr. is shooting 37.4 percent from three in his first season with the team.
That said, Brown and Nuggets rookie Christian Braun are great defenders who could do a fine job guarding any number of the perimeter players that L.A. has.
Unfortunately, the players that could have success guarding the Lakers’ cadre of backcourt players have a major drop-off in terms of scoring potential when compared to Murray.
That’s not so much the case for the Lakers, who are as likely to take LeBron and AD off the court as Nuggets head coach Michael Malone is to take Jokic off.
Can The Nuggets Pull It Off?
For that matter, there’s no question that Jokic will have a strong series against L.A. However, as he’s only averaged 23.3 points per game against L.A. this season, there’s reason to question if it will be enough to take down the new-look Lakers.
The same question holds true for Murray, who will have to outplay the Lakers backcourt for them to have any chance. This season, he’s averaged 22.8 points per game against L.A. on 44.4 percent shooting.
Thats just not enough.
Especially against a couple of players who are especially motivated.
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