NBA Western Conference Finals Preview

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BetMGM @BETMGM Jun 16, 2021, 2:20 PM

Well, there you have it, folks. A Western Conference Final (WCF) series that no-one saw coming. It’s the LA Lakers versus the Denver Nuggets. Let’s take a look at how we got here, the history between the teams, the sports betting odds, and whether the Lakers will be the final chapter in the Nuggets’ Cinderella story.

The unexpected road to the Western Conference Final

You cannot talk about the Western Conference Finals without talking about how we got here in the first place. If you asked most people who they were expecting in the NBA Western Conference Finals, you’d have heard the LA Lakers and LA Clippers. Maybe a few mentions of the Rockets here or there, or maybe even the Thunder. But the Nuggets, who many believed didn’t even belong in the bubble, came out of nowhere and told the world: you are wrong to doubt us! 

The Utah Jazz vs the Denver Nuggets

In their first playoff match against the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets fooled everyone into thinking they were done. After digging themselves a 1-3 hole, the Nuggets seemed beaten by the powerful and athletic Utah rotation. However, two hard-fought wins by the Nuggets brought the series back to 3-3.

In the final game, a tough shot from Jokic eventually sealed a thrilling game 7 triumph, moving on to face the overall favourite LA Clippers in the semi finals.

The LA Clippers vs the Denver Nuggets - A true Cinderella story

Gary Harris of the Denver Nuggets drives to the net against Kawhi Leonard of the LA Clippers.

Everyone expected the Clippers to make short work of the Nuggets, and they did. At least, at the start when the Clippers took an early 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinal series. 

Denver looked down and out as they trailed by 13 in the fourth quarter to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers. Enter Paul Millsap - whose second half performance, gave Denver the boost it needed to steal a win, and keep their hopes alive. 

In Game 6, the Clippers stumbled and threw away a double-digit lead again. This rollercoaster of a game saw the Nuggets shut down the Clippers and gain momentum in the third quarter, before closing out the game 111-98. Many look at Jokic’s performance and the difficult shots he managed to land, including a one-legged three pointer, as key to the Nugget’s victory.  

Which brings us to Game 7. Again, the Nuggets showed the world they seemed to be at their best when performing from behind. With only 4 minutes and 20 seconds left in the second quarter, the Clippers were dominating the Nuggets with a 12 point lead. 

But true to form, the Nuggets turned up the heat. The Denver team managed to close the gap, and at 8:57 in the third, Grant landed an effortless 3 which gave the Nuggets the lead. From there on out, the Nuggets were in charge. They ended the game 104-89, sending the Clippers packing in an upset that nobody saw coming.

It’s this unexpected series of events that brings us to this unusual WCF.

The Western Conference Finals: The LA Lakers vs the Denver Nuggets

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots over Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets.

The Western Conference Finals have been dominated by the Golden State Warriors for the last five years. The Warriors crushed their opponents in three of those years, with two close victories against the Houston Rockets in 2018 and the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. 

But this year’s WCF waves goodbye to the Warriors, who only finished 15th in the NBA Western Conference, and says hello to the reborn LA Lakers, and the undisputed underdogs, the Denver Nuggets. Game 1 of this series starts on Friday, September 18th, at 9 PM.

The Western Conference Finals, and the history of these two teams

This marks a return to form for the LA Lakers, who, before their slump, were frequent contenders for the title, securing it three times between 2008 and 2010, 2000 and 2002, and 1987 and 1989. 

The Denver Nuggets on the other hand, have only made it to the finals three times in Western Conference history. The first time was against the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978, the second in 1985 against the LA Lakers, and the third time again against the Lakers in 2009.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they’ve never managed to win the Conference finals, but after their stellar performance this year, do they have a shot? Their all-time head-to-head history against the Lakers during the regular season leans heavily in favor of the Lakers. These two teams have played a total of 179 times during the regular season, with the Lakers winning 108 games to the Nuggets’ 71. That’s a 60.3% winning percentage vs 39.7%. These two teams played 4 times in the 2020 regular season, with the Lakers winning in 3 of those games.

When it comes to their playoff games, the gap widens even further. These two teams have faced off 28 times against each other in six playoff series, with the Lakers dominating the Nuggets 21-7. That’s a 75% win rate for the Lakers in terms of total playoff games. This gets worse when you look at their series record, the Nuggets have never managed to win a single series against the Los Angeles team.

The performance of the current teams

As much history as there is between these two teams, after the Nuggets’ surprise victory, people want to know what they need to look out for today.

What you should know about the Denver Nuggets

BetMGM Online sports betting odds - Denver Nuggets Western Conference winner: +500

Game 1: Spread +7, Total Over 212.5, Moneyline +230

FiveThirtyEight Ratings: Current rating 1687, Full-strength rating 1703, Chance to make it to the finals 40%, Chance to win the finals 10%

Wins and losses: Regular season 46-27, Playoffs 8-6

There’s one word that clearly describes the Nuggets right now: underdogs. As much potential as they’ve shown, they’re not expected to win. Unlike the Lakers, the Nuggets have had a much messier regular season, and if it weren’t for two miracle comebacks during their playoff games, we wouldn’t even be here discussing how likely they are to win the final.

Leading the Nuggets to victory overall is undoubtedly Nikola Jokic. In the postseason, he’s scoring 25.4 points per game, claiming 10.8 rebounds, and is ensuring his team scores when they can with an impressive 6.0 in terms of assists. He’s also set new records with seven triple-doubles, first player to score a triple-double in Game 7 through three quarters, and more than 15 rebounds with a triple-double in both the regular and playoff games.

Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets shoots over Ivica Zubac of the LA Clippers.

Proving to be even more of an offensive threat is Jamal Murray, who’s scoring an average of 27.1 points per game in the postseason. He’s also helping his team get the ball into the net, with an impressive 6.4 assists per game. 

However, he clearly needs to work on his rebounds, as he’s only averaging 5.0 per game. He’s definitely dropping the ball on the defensive side, where he only has 3.9 defensive rebounds, compared to Jokic’s 9.1 and even Michael Porter Jr.’s 5.7.  

As great as these two superstars are, the other Nuggets players are going to have to step up their game on the offensive side. In the postseason, the Nuggets have placed 11th overall, with only 106.8 points per game. That being said, those 106.8 points per game were enough to beat the LA Clippers, who sit at third with 114.0 points per game.

Even though the Nuggets’ key players rival the stars of the LA Lakers in terms of offensive power, they’re going to have a tough time on defense. They’re currently in 11th with a rating of 114.0, while the Lakers are sitting at a much safer third place.

What you should know about the LA Lakers

BetMGM Online sports betting odds - LA Lakers Western Conference winner: -714

Game 1: Spread -7, Total Under 212.5, Moneyline -294

FiveThirtyEight Ratings: Current rating 1719, Full-strength rating 1716, Chance to make it to the finals 60%, Chance to win the finals 17%

Wins and losses: Regular season 52-19, Playoffs 8-2

There’s no doubt that the Lakers are the favorites going into the Western Conference Final. Despite a rocky start in the bubble, they’ve dominated the regular season and dealt with their opponents decisively during the playoffs. 

Individually the Lakers have two undeniable powerhouses with Anthony Davis and LeBron James. Davis leads the pack in the postseason with an average 27.6 points per game, with James coming in a close second with 26.6. Davis has a tiny edge on James when it comes to rebounds with 10.9 versus LeBron’s 10.3. 

Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball during a game against the Houston Rockets.

One area where James absolutely destroys Davis is with assists. Who’d have ever thought that superstar LeBron James would ever be so selfless, with an average of 8.8 assists per game. Davis, on the other hand, is sitting in third with 4.1, below second place Rajon Rondo who has 7.0.

Despite Anthony Davis undoubtedly being one of the most valued players on the team, one sportswriter even went so far as to say that Davis might be one of the most underrated players in the league, discussing how rarely his name gets brought up as MVP

Davis is arguably one of the most complete NBA players in the league today. He’s got skills that make him great on both ends of the floor, and is undoubtedly the guy that makes the Lakers such a strong defensive team.

James on the other hand was slacking on the defensive side. That is until Davis joined the team and reminded him how it’s done. Davis lit a fire under James, who now competes with Davis in terms of defensive power. Not bad for a guy who gained a reputation at one point for “resting” on the court not so long ago.

It’s this defensive power that has gotten them, as we mentioned earlier, third place in the league overall, with a rating of 105.4. This is only behind the Toronto Raptors with 104.9, and the Celtics with 103.3. This puts the Lakers 8 places ahead of the Nuggets, with almost a 6 point difference.

Players to watch

Duos LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray

LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrate after defeating the Denver Nuggets.

Each team has a powerhouse duo: for the Lakers that duo is LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while their counterparts on the Nuggets are Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Whether a team succeeds or fails will likely depend on how well each of these duos plays. 

While there is some debate on whether LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the best duo currently in the NBA, there’s no doubt that they’re definitely the best duo the Lakers have had in a long time. Former player Kendrick Perkins highlighted how they’re the best Lakers duo since Kobe and Shaq. 

“When you’re looking at these two guys, they complete each other very well. The biggest word that comes to my mind is sacrifice.” He continued “When LeBron comes out and says hey, we’re going to go through Anthony Davis, that spoke volumes to me and that spoke volumes to the world that I’m willing to sacrifice. And when you listen to their press conferences, A.D. always praises LeBron, and LeBron always praises A.D. And the interesting thing is how it sets the tone, and bought into Frank Vogel’s system defensively.” 

Finally, he highlights how both players are doing the extra things, like taking charges, chase-down blocks, or diving into the stands for loose balls, that really helps them stand out.

In the Nuggets duo, Jokic is the rock. Reliable, efficient, and more consistent. Murray on the other hand is slightly less reliable, but he’s definitely explosive, delivering some amazing peak performances for such a young player. Joel Rush, a writer for Forbes, saw the potential of this pair and decided to dig deeper into how these two compare against some of the best duos of all time. 

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets tap hands during a game against the LA Clippers.

Long answer short, this young duo has outperformed all expectations and can proudly stand alongside some of the greats, including the likes of Tim Duncan/David Robinson, Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen, and Giannis Antetokounmpo/Khris Middleton. This high level of play is probably unsurprising to Nuggets fans, who’ve heard Jokic joke that he and Murray are “like a couple”.

Even with the Lakers being the obvious favorite, it will be incredibly interesting to watch these two duos come head-to-head. We’re currently leaning slightly in favor of James and Davis, simply because of their experience, and the fact that Murray has a few things he needs to tighten up, but we think this clash will be incredible regardless of who wins.

Kyle Kuzma

CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers steals the ball from Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Kyle Kuzma has undoubtedly been getting a lot of attention since his buzzer beater helped the Lakers beat the Nuggets 124-121 a few weeks ago. This helped them snap out of a three game losing streak and gave the young player some well-deserved attention.

Since then, the Lakers player has gone on to post a respectable performance against the Trail Blazers, with 10.8 points per game in the series, even though his field goal percentage was looking less impressive at 35.5. He stepped things up against the Houston Rockets, where he scored 11.2 points per game, and landed 55.6% of his field goal shots across the entire series.

Kuzma is definitely someone to keep an eye out for in the finals. He’s growing as a player and has the potential to catch even the best opponents off guard.

Michael Porter Jr.

For the Nuggets, Michael Porter Jr. has definitely been the rookie to keep an eye on. He will undoubtedly be remembered for his fantastic 3-pointer against the Clippers that helped the Nuggets cement their lead and claim Game 5, but there’s more to him than that.

The young player also managed to deliver an outstanding performance against the Utah Jazz in Game 2, scoring 28 points that sadly still resulted in a loss for the team. Since then he’s definitely been a bit inconsistent, but he’s still averaged 12.00 points per game against the Jazz, and 10.1 points against the Clippers. 

His field goal percentage average was as low as 38.9 against the Clippers, but as high as 42.9% against the Jazz. Unpacking the performance of each game, in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, we again come back to one issue: consistency.

If Head Coach Michael Malone can help him address this issue, he’s got a bright future ahead of him. In terms of the finals, how big of a role he’ll play will depend on whether he’s having a good or bad day.

Who should I bet on for the Western Conference title

At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that the Lakers are the safer bet for the WCF with -714. But safe bets also saw the Clippers comfortably sweeping the Nuggets aside. Whoever you decide to bet on, there’s no doubt that this Western Conference Final is going to be one to remember.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.