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Stiffs Mailbag: Initial questions about the Western Conference Finals

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Answering Twitter questions from Stiffs readers

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

You know the drill. Let’s get right into the questions!


I keep thinking that the Denver Nuggets have to be exhausted. Their only respite in the bubble thus far is the three days off they took to discuss how to proceed after Jacob Blake’s death. That time period was so electrically charged from both inside and outside the bubble that I can’t imagine the Nuggets actually accumulated some rest during that time. As of now, the Nuggets have played 22 basketball games in the last 48 days, 14 of which have been high intensity playoff series, and six of which have been used to come back from 3-1 deficits.

On the flip side, the Los Angeles Lakers have played 18 games in the last 50 days. Neither of their playoff series wins have needed more than five games, and they had an extra three days of rest to recover. They should have no excuse for fatigue, or at least no excuse stronger than whatever the Nuggets might claim.

So, my initial thoughts are that the “every other day” nature of the bubble will end up hurting the Nuggets due to fatigue. One of the reasons it helped them in the past is because of Nikola Jokic’s ability to be cerebral and learn things about his opponent on the fly. The entire Nuggets team is fairly smart. The Lakers are smart too, at least LeBron James certainly is. He will play a cerebral game himself and dissect whatever the Nuggets try and throw at him in quick fashion. That was an advantage the Nuggets had in the last series but no longer.


So, it would be difficult to ask the Nuggets to change their starting lineup after utilizing the same group for the previous 11 games that helped the Nuggets come back from down 3-1 TWICE (On an aside, it will never get old to type that. Never). Jerami Grant proved himself as a worthy defender against Kawhi Leonard. My guess is he will get the LeBron James assignment to start the series.

Whichever matchup Paul Millsap has depends on who the Lakers decide to start next to Anthony Davis. If the Lakers go back to a lineup featuring a center, whether it’s JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, Jokic will take that assignment and Millsap will guard Anthony Davis. If the Lakers decide to keep starting Anthony Davis at center, I expect Jokic to guard Davis initially and Millsap to guard Markieff Morris, the power forward the Lakers utilized against the Houston Rockets in the second round. This Morris twin played better than the last Morris twin in the second round, so we will see if he has a little more fight in him.

Lastly with the guards, Jamal Murray will start and likely guard Danny Green, while Gary Harris will start and likely guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Those two matchups are interchangeable, meaning that Harris will likely spend most of his minutes guarding whoever is making shots between Green and KCP.


The great thing about Denver’s matchup against the Clippers was it proved that the Nuggets have several capable role players. Gary Harris returned to form, averaging 10.7 points and 2.6 assists along with a 65.7% True Shooting percentage against the Clippers while defending Paul George. Michael Porter Jr. showcased decent positional defense while adding an additional 10.1 points and an absurd 6.9 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. Jerami Grant continues to provide two-way value when his shot is falling, but he’s also a threat on cuts and straight line drives when he’s not.

On the other side, Rajon Rondo has bounced back in a big way for the Lakers off the bench and has become the third playmaker they’ve needed in the bubble to keep the offense flowing. Kyle Kumza and Markieff Morris shot the ball well, as did Green and KCP. Alex Caruso fills in the gaps.

I’d probably rank it this way beyond the top four players:

  1. Gary Harris
  2. Rajon Rondo
  3. Jerami Grant
  4. Danny Green
  5. Michael Porter Jr.

For the Nuggets to win this series, they will need to have at least four of the five “next best” players in this series. LeBron and Davis are great, and it’s going to be impossible for the Nuggets to consistently slow them down the way Kawhi and PG slowed down in the second halves of elimination games. Jokic and Murray will continue to be good, but the Nuggets will need even bigger performances from the supporting cast than they had against the Clippers.

If Will Barton were to return, he might be on this list too.


The Lakers are a great defensive team. The Clippers had great defensive players, but that really is the difference. Head coach Frank Vogel has done a great job of utilizing defensive principles that put the Lakers in a great position to succeed on that end of the floor. They utilize the high IQ defense of Green, Caruso, and James along with the elite defensive instincts/abilities of Davis to hound opposing players on every action.

This will be a great series evaluating what the Nuggets and Lakers do against each other. As you stated, the Lakers like the crash the paint. They are capable of preventing shots at the rim but can be successful to perimeter jumpers.

It’s easy to see Murray and Jokic running a similar two-man game to what Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee run above. The wide open corner three can definitely be open. In the Conference Semi-Finals against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers allowed 14.6 corner threes attempted per game, an outrageously high number. The Rockets didn’t have anyone other than James Harden to also get to the basket, while the Nuggets have two players in Murray and Jokic who can put pressure on the interior and convert tough shot opportunities. Denver will be tougher to deal with than Houston was.

There will be possessions like the one below where Murray goes to work against lesser defenders that he believes he can cook. Kuzma is the victim here, and Murray has perfected this move during the season and in the bubble.

How the Nuggets attack the paint will be mostly dictated by how much the Lakers want to commit to stopping drives from Denver’s stars. If they load up the paint and don’t play Murray and Jokic aggressively on the perimeter, those two will light up the Western Conference Finals with three-pointers. If the Lakers stop those shots on the perimeter, it will open up the paint for easier shot opportunities inside for Jokic, Murray, and others.


“Expect” is probably the wrong word, but I wouldn’t be surprised by it. The Lakers will probably try to utilize Davis next to a center at different parts of this series so Davis doesn’t rack up fouls guarding Jokic. In those situations, I tend to think Denver should stay in their traditional looks with Jokic on the center and Millsap on Davis; however, if Millsap picks up fouls or isn’t effective, Plumlee would be an interesting counter.

Normally, offenses struggle when two centers share the floor, but Jokic and Plumlee are unique in their passing tendencies and generally move the ball enough to get a good shot offensively. If Jokic is hitting his threes, then this pairing will be just fine on that end. Defensively, someone has to guard Davis, and Plumlee, though more athletic than Jokic with less burden offensively, has a heavy tendency to commit fouls. The last thing the Nuggets should be looking to do against Davis is give him easy points at the free throw line. He was an 84.6% free throw shooter in the regular season, and though he’s only shooting 75.0% in the playoffs, he’s averaging 9.2 attempts per game.

I’m not sure if Plumlee will make things easier or more difficult on Davis, and for that reason, I’d be wary of that matchup.


Unfortunately, there have not been any Will Barton updates since Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports shared during Game 3 of Nuggets-Clippers 10 days ago that Barton was training in Miami and had a chance to return to the Bubble by the end of that playoff series. From what I understand, that hasn’t happened yet.

If the implication is true that Barton is outside the bubble and will need to quarantine before playing with the team, he would have to wait until at least Game 3 to suit up and play. That’s if he’s fully ready to play and understand what’s going on to affect the game in a positive way and help his team, which I doubt he (or anyone) is capable of doing in such a short turnaround. That might mean the Nuggets hold him out until Game 4.

Again, that implies he’s back by tomorrow, which he probably won’t be.

At this point, the proper expectation for Barton is no expectation at all. It’s clear that something is holding up Barton from reentering the Bubble. Whether it’s knee soreness as previously reported or something else doesn’t really matter. If he’s not there to play, then he’s not there to play, and it’s unfair to hold any expectation of him making a difference in these playoffs.