Lakers vs. Nuggets preview: Five critical areas to watch

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The Los Angeles Lakers expected to be here. They have been title favorites since the season tipped off. LeBron James personally and the Lakers as an organization are used to this spotlight.

Nobody expected the Denver Nuggets to be here. Their coaches and players will say they did, but they were pretty much alone on that island.

After two dramatic comebacks from 3-1 down in a series, Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets have earned their shot at the big dog, LeBron and the Lakers. It’s the Western Conference Finals, and while maybe not the one everyone expected, it is an interesting one none-the-less. Game 1 tips off on Friday.

Can Denver pull off another big upset of a Los Angeles team? Here are five critical areas to watch this series (with a prediction thrown in at the end).

1) Who do the Lakers have to cover Jamal Murray?

After a series where he felt smothered by long, athletic, aggressive Clippers defenders, Jamal Murray broke out in Game 7 with 40 points (when the Clippers had to focus more on Jokic). Murray looked like the dangerous, aggressive three-level scorer he had been against Utah — the guy he’s going to need a for Denver to have a chance this series.

The Lakers have natural matchups and have had success going against Jokic (more on that coming, keep reading), but with Avery Bradley choosing to sit out the restart, the Lakers don’t have an obvious, natural defender for Murray. During the regular-season meetings, Murray was right about at his season scoring average against the Lakers (although he struggled from three), but in the playoffs he has stepped up his game. And his three-ball has been falling.

The Lakers, on the other hand, have seen top guards all playoffs long — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, James Harden, Russell Westbrook — and every one of them saw their scoring average drop against a Lakers team playing the best defense of any West team in the bubble. In the case of Murray, expect Frank Vogel to go with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and some quickness to pressure the ball out top — take the three away and force Murray to drive into help, where the Laker length and sharp defensive rotations can make him less efficient.

If Denver is going to pull the upset, Murray will have to break through that and look like the guy who tormented Utah in the first round.

2) Who wins Nikola Jokic vs. Anthony Davis and the Lakers’ centers matchup?

With all due respect to Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic is the best offensive center in the game today. His ability to shoot the three makes Denver a team that can play five-out and keep the paint clear for penetration. He can score in the post, has a midrange game, and (no matter what Mark Jackson says on the broadcast) is the best passing big man the game has ever seen. Denver’s players make smart cuts and move off the ball when Jokic has it at the elbow because they know they will be rewarded. Jokic is the fulcrum of the offense and deserved his All-NBA nod.

The Lakers match up relatively well here. They have the defenders to slow Jokic down and did so in the regular-season meetings. Laker coach Frank Vogel has said he would go back to more of his traditional centers — whether that both JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, or just McGee to start remains to be seen — but he knows as a backup he has an elite defender in Anthony Davis. It worked during the regular season when the Lakers held Jokic three points below his season scoring average and cut his rebounds down as well.

Most importantly, Davis and his ability to hit the three will draw Jokic out of the paint and force him to defend on the perimeter, where Jokic can still be exploited. Davis also can go right at the Denver big man and get him in foul trouble.

As great as Jokic is, this is potentially an Anthony Davis series, where he is the most dominant player on the court. If that happens, Denver is in real trouble.

3) How will Denver’s defense hold up when the Lakers go mismatch hunting?

Denver’s defense in the playoffs has been solid, their rim protection improved from the regular season, but it has flaws. Jokic is not great on the perimeter. Michael Porter Jr., for all his athleticism and a few defensive plays, gets lost on pick-and-roll defenses. Gary Harris can be exploited in the pick-and-roll.

For reasons nobody understands — least of all their fans — the Clippers rarely attacked those mismatches. The playoffs are supposed to be about matchups, but the Clippers just kept doing their regular-season thing.

LeBron James will hunt mismatches. Mercilessly.

So will Rajon Rondo and the rest of the Lakers. Denver will likely start with Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap on LeBron, with a heavy dose of Torrey Craig off the bench, but LeBron and Davis are going to run pick-and-rolls and force Jokic to switch (a win for Los Angeles) or show out and recover (also a win for Los Angeles with Davis’ skill and LeBron’s passing). The Lakers are not going to let Jokic play back and clog the paint. Also, look for the Lakers to get Murray switched on to LeBron, then send LeBron to the post — the Lakers’ star is elite there, Murray is overmatched.

Porter Jr. will not be able to hide on the court — when he’s not defending a pick-and-roll on-ball he will be dealing with pin-downs and other off-ball actions chasing Kyle Kuzma around. If he loses focus (as he tends to do), the Lakers will torch him.

Denver’s defense has been good in the playoffs, but it has to be much better in this series to have a chance.

4) Can the Nuggets keep LeBron and the Lakers out of transition?

Pace is something to watch this series. No team added more points per 100 possessions through transition this season than the Lakers, and the Lakers have started a higher percentage of their offense in transition than any other team in the playoffs (16.5% of their plays start that way, stats via Cleaning the Glass). Denver has been an improved halfcourt defense this postseason, but their transition defense is the worst of any of the teams left in the dance.

Despite the odd Jokic football outlet pass (a true thing of beauty), Denver wants to slow the game down. If the Lakers get stops then fast buckets going the other way — with LeBron leading the break like a freight train —the Nuggets will struggle to keep up on the scoreboard.

5) Who will dominate points in the paint?

If there is one stat to track this series, points in the paint — or, better yet, shots at the rim — is it.

The postseason Lakers have been in attack mode: Los Angeles has taken a higher percentage of its shots at the rim than any team in the playoffs. By far. Denver allows shots at the rim in the playoffs but has done a better job contesting (teams shoot 63% against Denver in the restricted area in the playoffs, which is about the league average). However, the Nuggets have not had to face a team yet that attacks the rim with finishers like LeBron and Davis.

Go back and watch the regular-season meetings between these teams, and the Lakers owned the Nuggets at the rim. Denver has to keep the Lakers out of the paint. It’s just not that easy to do.

Prediction: Lakers in five. Denver has impressed these playoffs and deserves to be mentioned with the league’s elite, but Los Angeles is a bad matchup for them. LeBron can have all the coffee he wants — he is a closer of the highest order. The Nuggets can’t fall behind in this series and bounce back.

Luka Doncic leaves game with sprained ankle, X-rays negative

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Mavericks fans everywhere were holding their breath.

Just more than three minutes into a showdown with the Suns Thursday, Luka Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but didn’t get around him, so Doncic stopped, spun, tried to step back, and stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges‘ and rolled his left ankle.

After a Torey Craig 3-pointer, Doncic left the game and hobbled back to the Mavericks locker room to be checked out. While X-rays were negative Doncic is out for the remainder of the game.

It will be tomorrow before the Mavericks can get a feel for how long Doncic might be out. They can’t afford for him to be out long, Dallas has been outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when Doncic is off the court. He has been playing through ankle soreness for a few weeks but has missed only a couple of games.

Doncic, who was just voted an All-Star starter, is in the MVP mix this season averaging 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. The Mavericks are 8.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

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LeBron James is just 157 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, which he should break early next month. But before breaking that iconic record, he tied Abdul-Jabbar for another NBA milestone.

LeBron was the leading fan vote-getter and is an NBA All-Star Game for the 19th time, tying Abdul-Jabbar for the most All-Star appearances in league history.

James and Giannis Antetokounmpo received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains of the teams for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is Antetokounmpo’s third time as captain, it is LeBron’s sixth — and his teams are 5-0 in his previous captaincies.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will pick their teams playground style right on the court before the game. They will choose from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week). Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

This is the first start for Zion Williamson and Donovan Mitchell.

The vote also squeezed Joel Embiid out of a crowded frontcourt in the East. Here is the voting breakdown, where each player’s score is weighted based on 50 percent for the fan vote, 25 percent for player vote, and 25 percent for the media vote.

Eastern Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *#Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)      1      1      2      1.25
2. *Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)      2      2      4      2.5
3. *Jayson Tatum (Boston)      3      4      1      2.75
4. Joel Embiid (Philadephia)      4      3      3      3.75
5. Jimmy Butler (Miami)      5      7      5      5.5
6. Pascal Siakam (Toronto)      6     6      5      5.75
7. Paolo Banchero (Orlando)      8      8      5      7.25
8. Bam Adebayo (Miami)      11      5      5      8.0
9. Julius Randle (New York)      9      10      5      8.25
10. Kyle Kuzma (Washington)      7      16      5      9.25

 

Eastern Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Kyrie Irving (Boston)      1      1      4      1.75
2. *Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland)      2      2      1      1.75
3. Jaylen Brown (Boston)      3      3      2      2.75
4. James Harden (Philadelphia)      4     5      5      4.5
5. Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana)      8      6      3      6.25
6. DeMar DeRozan (Chicago)      6      4      10      6.5
7. Trae Young (Atlanta)      12      5      6      7.0
8. LaMelo Ball (Charlotte)      7      9      10     8.25
9. Darius Garland (Cleveland)      10      7      6      8.25
10. Jalen Brunson (Milwaukee)      12      8      9      10.25

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Western Conference Frontcourt

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *# LeBron James (Los Angeles)      1      2      2      1.5
2. *Nikola Jokic (Denver)      2      1     1      1.5
3. *Zion Williamson (New Orleans)      4      3      4      3.75
4. Anthony Davis (Los Angeles)      3      7      6      4.25
5. Lauri Markkanen (Utah)      7      4      5      5.75
6. Domantas Sabonis (Sacramento)      9      5      3      6.5
7. Paul George (L.A. Clippers)      6      6      9      6.75
8. Andrew Wiggins (Golden State)      5      19      9     9.5
9. Draymond Green (Golden State)      14      9      9      9.75
10. Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers)      11      14      7      10.75

Western Conference Guards

Player (Team) Fan Rank Player Rank Media Rank Weighted Score
1. *Stephen Curry (Golden State)      1     2      2      1.5
2. *Luka Doncic (Dallas)      2      1      1      1.5
3. Ja Morant (Memphis)      3      3      3      3
4. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City)      4      4      4      4
5. Damian Lillard (Portland)      7      5      5      6.0
6. De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento)      8      5      5      6.5
7. Devin Booker (Phoenix)      10      7      5      8
8. Russell Westbrook (Los Angeles)      6      18      5      8.75
9. Anthony Edwards (Minnesota)      13      8      5      9.75
10. Klay Thompson (Golden State)      5      25      5      10

 *–Voted to start
#–Team captain

Curry, frustrated with Poole, gets ejected for throwing mouthpiece into crowd

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors
Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
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Stephen Curry has been ejected three times in his NBA career, and each time the incident was mouthpiece related.

The latest came Wednesday night. With 1:25 remaining in the fourth quarter of a tight game with the Grizzlies, Klay Thompson missed a floater, Donte DiVincenzo tipped the rebound out and kept it alive, Thomspon grabbed it and passed it to Poole out top to reset the offense, with Curry calling for the ball a few feet away from him. Instead, Poole jacked up a three like the shot clock was going to expire. The shot missed and Curry, out of frustration, threw his mouthpiece in the stands. That got him an automatic ejection.

“He knows he can’t make that mistake,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame, via the Associated Press.

Poole had fun with Curry postgame, throwing his mouthpiece in the hallway.

“I did see that,” Curry said, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “It’s like one of those ‘too soon’ jokes. I was still hot. I was still hot.”

After the game, some fans tried to argue that, by NBA rules, Curry did not have to be ejected. The NBA rulebook specifically states that any “player who throws or kicks the ball directly into the stands with force” will be ejected, as will a player who throws “the ball or any object at an official.” The argument goes Curry didn’t throw his mouthpiece at an official. However, the rulebook also says a technical can be “assessed to any player on the court or anyone seated on the bench for conduct which, in the opinion of an official, is detrimental to the game,” and the league has said consistently in recent years that throwing a mouthpiece or anything into the crowd is detrimental to the game, penalized with a technical and automatic ejection. Maybe there should be more leeway with the enforcement of said rule, but Curry knew better.

The Warriors went on to get the win over their rivals from Memphis, the old guard held the new guard off again. But the next time these teams meet, the Warriors will need Curry on the court until the end of the game.

What will happen with Warriors biggest free agent this summer: Bob Myers

2022 Golden State Warriors Victory Parade & Rally
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
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This summer, the Warriors have on their plate a couple of major decisions that could lead to free agency and change the course of the franchise. One is Draymond Green, who has a $27.6 million player option, didn’t get an extension he wanted with the team last summer (while Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins did), and could be the guy standing without a chair when the music stops. The Warriors can’t pay everyone.

The other free agent: general manager Bob Myers.

His is an even more complex and nuanced situation — will the Warriors make him the highest-paid executive in the league, and does Myers still want the job — that could be the latest sign that the dynastic Curry era in Golden State is coming to an end.

At the Athletic, Anthony Slater, Marcus Thompson II and Sam Amick break down the situation incredibly well in a story Warriors fans should read.

As the clock ticks and extension talks remain flat, many around Myers are wondering whether – and even predicting that – his days with the Warriors are about to run out…

For all the nuance that surrounds the situation, this much is clear: team and league sources, who like all of the sources in this story were granted anonymity so they could speak freely, say Myers believes he should be among the highest-paid front office executives in the league, if not the highest. He’s been the architect of four NBA title teams, was the lead recruiter in the Durant free agency signing, and has been the trusted conduit between players, coaches and ownership. Myers also has served as chief problem solver, the coolant in an ecosystem that periodically overheats…

Part of the equation for Myers, known for his deep conversations and intellectual curiosity, is the contemplation of what’s next. After more than a decade of building a dynasty, and managing it through the intensity of modern scrutiny, and living beneath the relentless pressure of the Warriors’ championship standard, might Myers be interested in a new challenge? Would it be better for him and his family to move on, build up another franchise away from the Golden State fish bowl? He walked away from a successful career as a player agent to become an NBA executive. Is it now time to leave the front office behind and try his hand in another industry?

While there are other layers, it’s always about the money.

The very top NBA executives make north of $10 million a season. While Warriors owner Joe Lacob has said Myers is one of the highest-paid general managers in the league, titles get fuzzy (and somewhat meaningless) around the league — many guys in Myers’ role have a president or VP title attached to their name. His pay relative to title can get bogged down in semantics that miss the basic “pay me” bottom line of this.

There are no straight lines and simple answers here, but if Myers gets paid like Daryl Morey or Masai Ujiri he is far more likely to stay. Even if he gets that money, how badly does Myers want to stay on for the final years of the Stephen Curry era and start rebuilding whatever comes next? Does he want to walk away? Hang around for a few years then take his leave?

More than whatever happens with Green, the Myers situation will signal what comes next for this era of the Warriors and what they may look like going forward. He is the ultimate architect. This is the biggest decision the Warriors have this offseason.