Lakers vs. Nuggets Western Conference Finals roundtable breaking down series


For NBC Sports Bet The Edge, four analysts from the NBC Sports family came together to break down the Western Conference Finals matchup between LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers against Nikola Jokić and the Denver Nuggets. The analysts were divided, this is no easy series to decide.

The four are Kurt Helin, lead NBA writer for NBC Sports; Jay Croucher, the lead betting analyst for NBC Sports; Vaughn Dalzell a sports betting analyst for NBC Sports; and Drew Dinsick an NFL, NBA, Tennis Handicapper with NBC Sports.

Let’s jump into the discussion.

Jay Croucher: We thought the pandemic was over but it is not, we are back in the bubble with rematches of the 2020 Conference Finals.

Let’s get straight into the Western Conference Finals, Lakers at Nuggets. Kurt, we’ll start with you. This market is trending towards Denver, they are -160 favorites to win the series series now, 5.5 point favorites in Game 1. Do you think they’re a pretty solid favorite, is their status warranted?

Kurt Helin: Yeah. Except this is one of those situations where on paper, in a bubble, when I’m just looking at it, I’m like, ‘Denver should win this.’ They’ve been playing better defense than during the season, and the way their offense is constructed will give the Lakers’ defense real problems. The Lakers don’t have… well, nobody has a good answer for Jokic, but his passing to cutters and having actual having shooters everywhere — unlike the Warriors — causes problems.

My concern is simply this: The Lakers and LeBron James are an organization and a player used to the stage, used to rising to the occasion on the stage, used to finding a well and reserve of strong play — and he did it last series. He had a brilliant Game 6 because they knew they couldn’t go up there for Game 7, and so he’s got 30 points and on ridiculous, what was it, a 10-of-13 shooting or whatever it was [Note: It was 10-of-14]. He’s going to be good. Is Denver? I’ll ask you guys, is Denver ready for this moment?

Vaughn Dalzell: In the two years since the bubble, what have we seen to make us think that they are ready to take that step forward? I mean, Drew, have you seen anything because I don’t think so. Lakers at +130 LeBron, 10-1 in conference finals.

Drew Dinsick: I mean, my grades — other than for Jokic — my grades on the players on the Nuggets are all a little bit lower than what the guys that were in the bubble. So it’s tough to say. My grade on Jokic is quite a lot higher than he was even a couple years ago. He continues improving his game in ways that I think are difficult to quantify.

The thing that has set the Lakers apart in this particular playoff run: Anthony Davis‘ defensive impact, but just the Lakers team defense overall being really well organized, just not making many mistakes. And that’s going to be put to the test because so far what we’ve seen this season, and really the last couple of seasons, but particularly, in 2023, Jokic is now an offensive player that defies any matchup. There’s almost nothing you can do you have to pick your poison. And, you know, it’s gonna be fascinating to see what the Lakers have in response to that because if their defensive effort is the same level we saw against the Warriors, the same level we saw against the Grizzlies, and they can steal one of these two in Denver to start off the series that will be huge. The role players are playing so well at home, and LeBron and A.D. pretty clearly are a dynamic duo that together is better than Jokić plus the next-best player for the Nuggets so it’s kind of it’s it’s gonna be an interesting matchup.

Jay Croucher: Yeah, I love the Nuggets. To me, the biggest development of the first two rounds of the playoffs in terms of championship equity is the level that the Nuggets’ defense has been playing at. I think we knew that they have the highest floor of any team on offense on a given possession because you just give the ball to Jokic. And then, like, you’re just guaranteed to get something relatively good out of that possession when you do that.

But the question was always defense and the fact that they’ve been able to operate at a 110 defensive rating the first two rounds, which is basically the best defense in the league during the regular season, obviously scoring goes down a bit in the playoffs, but I think the level that Gordon the KCP that MPJ even other they’re playing at defensively. Bruce Brown, I think when you add that to the level that Jokic is playing out on offense, which is about as high as a level as you can get to in the NBA, I think that Denver is the best team in the West.

I think that the Lakers, I think we’re going to look back on them as a team that, obviously they played really well, they’re exceeding expectations, but I think they’re also a product of how limited and underwhelming these Grizzlies and Warriors teams were. In particular the Warriors. They just didn’t have it this season, for whatever reason. Poole just going down the drain really impacted that team negatively. I think that the the Nuggets the way they handled the Wolves and the Suns, defensively in particular, gives me a fair bit of confidence that they’re going to handle the Lakers as well.

Vaughn, you disagree with that?

Vaughn Dalzell: I do disagree. I think Kevin Durant and Devin Booker would disagree with Aaron Gordon‘s defense, too, for the most part in that series, because from Game 3 on those two are incredible. I don’t know who really guards LeBron. Aaron Gordon looked good at some points, but the indication is that he’s going to have a lot of all-around performances. You mentioned KCP, he’s really that role player, can he step up for the Nuggets? He was with the Lakers previously and he’s done pretty well too. Another real player that no one’s mentioned is D'Angelo Russell. He’s made a big difference for the Lakers this season and in the postseason when he scores 15 or more points, they’re 7-1 compared to 1-3 when he does not.

The Lakers have started out good and in both series, they won both road Game 1s against Memphis and Golden State, like you mentioned. Denver and L.A. are both the only teams left in the playoffs that are undefeated at home. But I think you’re looking at a team that’s been here before, like Kurt said. And LeBron James, he’s been here so often.

The Nuggets, to me, those role players y’all mentioned, they’ve been good but they haven’t had a moment where they’ve gone up against the caliber of players in this round. I’m taking the team with more veteran leadership and arguably the best player of all time.

Drew Dinsick: Jay’s points were fair, but I gotta tell you Jay, I don’t know that I’m buying the Nuggets defense having taken a step forward, up against the Timberwolves and the Suns. And you know, both those squads there were pretty flawed.

Kurt Helin: Honestly, both teams played teams where you can hide guys that don’t exist this anymore, right? Denver’s got shooters everywhere. Like Jay said there’s no Jordan Poole there’s no Klay Thompson, who was awful the last three games of that series. Go ahead and leave KCP and Bruce Brown and see what happens.

The other thing that I think Denver’s offense can really click on is, remember when they started Gary Payton in Game 4 and Davis is now on Draymond Green and he’s got to come out to the level of the ball the pick and roll, and the Warriors back cut them to death for the first half. Until they switched Davis onto Wiggins. You’re not gonna be able to do that against the Nuggets. They love those cuts to the rim with Jokic passing and guys moving. I think their offense is going to click

I think the other thing I’m really curious about is both teams are going to have to find a way to stop dribble penetration. The Lakers really haven’t been great at it all season, even after the All-Star break. They can’t let this be a Jamal Murray series.

Jay Croucher: I think there’s a couple other things, too. One, the Lakers, they’re just forced to play a range of fairly limited players either on offense or defense. Guys like Rui [Hachimura], like [Jared] Vanderbilt, like D’Angelo Russell, he’s gonna have to be on the floor and they’re gonna have to deal with his defensive shortcomings. They don’t really have a backup center at all. I think that’s going to be an issue and it’ll be exploited by Denver.

This Lakers team was cobbled together in February, effectively. and I think that may rear its head against a Denver team that is playing with more continuity than anyone. And they just have so much connectivity on offense, and that spread to defense now as well.

The last thing is the Lakers completely no showed games two and five in both series and then also really struggled in games four of both series and I’m just worried that LeBron and A.D., with what they’ve dealt with health wise, I think that fatigue is going to be more of an element for them. There are no extended breaks in the conference finals, there is a game every other day. I think that favors Denver as well.

I think Anthony Davis is gonna have to be the best player in this series for the Lakers to win and I’m going to ride with Nikola Jokic.

Drew Dinsick: But I mean, depending on which games you’ve watched these playoffs, Anthony Davis has been the best player in the playoffs so far.

But you know, I think all the points we’re kind of making here make me re-look at this 222 total for Game 1 as potentially too low. Yes, the Lakers don’t necessarily want to wind up in a track meet but we’ve seen them come out now two series in a row and just really put on the afterburners, kick up the pace, play into pace in Game 1 against both the Grizzlies and the Warriors, so I could definitely see this series starting out as a little bit of a track meet.

Kurt Helin: Do the Lakers have to steal one of the first two?

Drew Dinsick: I think absolutely.

Vaughn Dalzell: Yes. I think they steal Game 1. I think I think Jeff Green doesn’t play enough defense in the post for the Nuggets and the Lakers score a ton, because that’s the backup center now, Jeff Green.

Jay Croucher: So let’s close out quickly with just some quick predictions. I’m gonna go Nuggets in five.

Vaughn Dalzell: I’m going Lakers in six.

Drew Dinsick: Man, Nuggets in seven.

Kurt Helin: I’ve got the Nuggets in seven.

Watch Derrick White putback force Game 7 as Celtics edge Heat


What. A. Game.

In the best game of these playoffs — as good as one in any postseason — it looked like the Miami Heat were going to get a culture win on a night their star Jimmy Butler was off his game until the final minutes. Three Butler free throws with :03 remaining put the Heat up by one, but the Celtics got one last chance. Marcus Smart short-armed that chance, but Derrick White was hustling along the baseline.

Miami gets the 104-103 win to even the series 3-3 and force a Memorial Day Game 7 back in Boston.

This was the kind of ugly, gritty game the Celtics tend to give away. They were certainly not at their peak in this one, shooting 7-of-35 from 3 as a team — usually a stat that leads to a loss for this Celtics team, which leans into the 3-pointer.

What saved them was a brilliant first half from Jayson Tatum, some solid play from Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in the second half, and an off night at the worst time for the Heat stars.

The first half was the Tatum show as he scored 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting, with 11 free throws and a couple of assists. He was attacking and aggressive, and the rest of the Celtics offense flowed off that and they got the lead up to 11.

However, the Heat closed that lead down to four at the half, 57-53, thanks largely to 9-of-15 shooting from 3.

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not the stars the Heat needed — they shot a combined 7-of-35 until the final minutes of the game — but the Miami role players stepped up. Caleb Martin got the start over Kevin Love and was the Heat’s best player on the night with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting plus 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

With their stars off their game the Heat struggled to score in the third, starting the quarter shooting 5-of-24 (20.8%), yet by the time the quarter was over the Heat were still only down seven. Miami was hanging around in a game they should have been blown out of.

That’s because the Celtics shot 5-of-25 from 3 through 3 quarters, plus Boston had 11 turnovers through three (compared to four for the Heat).

Tatum finished with 31 points to lead Boston, Jaylen Brown had 26 despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart added 21.

Boston had a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter but gave it away with missed shots and sloppy play under pressure. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler hit a big 3-pointer, kept attacking, and got to the free throw line with the chance to put his team ahead in the final seconds. And did. It looked like a classic, gutty, Heat culture win.

And then Derrick White happened.

And now there is a Game 7.

Milwaukee Bucks reportedly to hire Adrian Griffin as head coach

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors
Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Buzz had been growing for a week that Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin was the favorite Bucks coaching candidate of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nick Nurse had his backers in the organization, but in a superstar-driven league, the wishes of players like the Greek Freak hold a lot of sway (especially with him up for a new contract in a couple of years).

The Milwaukee Bucks are reportedly hiring Griffin as their next head coach, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This reaction from Fred VanVleet should tell you all you need to know about how the Raptors players felt about Griffin.

This hire is a gamble by the Bucks, turning the keys of a contender over to a rookie coach, but Griffin is more than deserving of a shot. Griffin spent eight years as a role player in the NBA — after going undrafted out of Seton Hall hand having to play in the Philipines — and then got into coaching, starting as an assistant in Milwaukee from 2008-2010. Griffin is seen as a defensive-first coach with a strong player development background (he worked with Jimmy Butler in Chicago). He’s been at or near the top of the “guys who deserve a shot” list for years and was in consideration for the open Raptors job in Toronto.

Instead, he now takes over a contender, although with a roster that is getting older and more expensive fast (free agent center Brook Lopez turns 35 this year, Khris Middleton is 31 and has a $40.4 million player option, Jrue Holiday is 31 and extension eligible come the fall).

Griffin will replace Mike Budenholzer, who was let go despite winning a championship with this team in 2021. Budenholzer is a process guy and was considered too rigid and slow to make adjustments in the playoffs, and this year’s first-round elimination by the No. 8 seed Miami Heat was seen as the culmination of that (even though Antetokounmpo missed two games due to a back injury). Griffin will bring a different voice and some new looks to a Bucks team still in its championship window.

Don’t be surprised if the Bucks hire a former NBA head coach to be Griffin’s lead assistant, to give him a veteran voice as a sounding board.

Nurse had been considered one of the frontrunners for this job, but now looks like someone destined to land in Philadelphia or Phoenix.

Heat guard Gabe Vincent reportedly to play in Game 6


Officially, Heat guard Gabe Vincent is listed as questionable for a critical Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night. He missed Game 5 due to a sprained ankle suffered late in Game 4 but was a partial participant in Saturday’s shootaround, according to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel.

However, a report from Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports points to what everyone expects: Vincent will play in Game 6.

Miami needs him back if they are going to win Game 6 at home and end this series (the Heat lead the series 3-2).

Not just because Vincent has averaged 17.5 points per game this series, but because of his ball handling and shot creation. In the second half of Game 4 and through Game 5, the Celtics changed their defensive game plan, becoming aggressive at jumping passing lanes, bringing doubles on drivers, and trying to force turnovers. During the regular season the Celtics were a bottom-five team in forcing turnovers by design — they bet that their impressive one-on-one defenders could make shots difficult and so off-ball defenders largely stayed home on guys off the ball and didn’t take risks. That changed and Miami struggled to adjust in Game 5, with Kyle Lowry — starting in place of Vincent — having three costly early turnovers.

Vincent back in the lineup could help counter the Celtics’ defense. Miami also needs great games from Jimmy Butler (who looked tired in Game 5) and Bam Adebayo, who also had an off game in Boston.

The Heat want no part of a Game 7, they need to close this series out Saturday night. They need Vincent to do that.

Coaching carousel update: Nick Nurse has strong, not universal, support in Milwaukee


Five open coaching jobs remain around the NBA: Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons.

Here is the latest on the searches to fill those openings.

UPDATE: The Milwaukee Bucks will hire Adrian Griffin as their new head coach.


• Nick Nurse may be the first domino to fall with him having drawn interest from the Suns, Bucks and 76ers. Nurse has strong support in Milwaukee, but it’s not universal, reports Ian Begley of

So it’s worth noting that, as of earlier this week, Nick Nurse’s candidacy had strong support within the organization. Though not all key stakeholders in Milwaukee were aligned on Nurse, per SNY sources.

• Nurse has interviewed in Phoenix as well. Their top target was current Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, according to multiple reports, but Begley reinforces what has been reported here at NBC Sports and other places: The Clippers are not expected to part ways with Lue. Even if they do, the Clippers will not let their coach walk to a division rival in Phoenix.

• Momentum appears to be building behind Suns’ assistant coach Kevin Young getting a promotion in Phoenix, with Marc Stein reporting he got a key endorsement.

Word is Young, who has also interviewed for the head coaching vacancies in Milwaukee and Toronto, has received a strong endorsement from Suns star Devin Booker.

• It would be risky to put a first-time head coach in charge of a contender in Phoenix. If new owner Mat Ishbia goes that route, look for the Suns to get a former NBA head coach to be his assistant (don’t be surprised to see that in Boston next season as well, where Joe Mazzulla is expected to remain as coach).

• Nurse, former Nets’ head coach and current Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson, and Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin remain the finalists for the Bucks head coaching job. Stein reports Giannis Antetokounmpo is “intrigued” by Griffin.

• Toronto’s coaching search could be influenced by which direction team president Masai Ujiri decides to take the roster, something else up in the air. From ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM).

“In talking to folks that have been in touch with the Raptors recently, the Raptors don’t seem to know which direction they’re going to take. Whether or not they are going to focus on re-signing Fred VanVleet, extending Pascal Siakam, potentially making other roster upgrades. Or whether or not they’re going to send Fred VanVleet in a sign-and-trade, maybe investigate moving other players be it OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam.”

• Multiple reports have Bucks’ assistant Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie as the frontrunners to be the next head coach in Detroit. Pistons’ ownership reportedly backed the Brinks truck up to Monty Williams’ house but he was not interested, Stein reported. The buzz has been that GM Troy Weaver is backing Ollie.

• The only coaching vacancy filled so far this offseason is Ime Udoka taking the job as the Rockets’ head coach.