When the Western Conference Finals matchups were set, everyone looked at the 2020 LA Lakers and Denver Nuggets, trying to find similarities of the series back then and the one that was about to happen this season. Laker fans took comfort in the fact that their team already beat a Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets team before and that the outcome would be the same this season.
As a Laker fan, I never believed any of that. If you’ve been paying attention to the Nuggets this season, you’d see just how different they are from the 2020 team. They’re the top seed in the West for a reason. That’s because they’re a damn good team.
Don’t believe me? Listen to the Lakers talk about the Nuggets after getting swept in the West Finals.
After the 2020 title, the Lakers have made several major changes to their team in the hopes of winning another one. The Nuggets went for continuity. They kept the same core of players but found better pieces that fit their system. That’s what impressed Austin Reaves about their opponent.
Austin Reaves gave the Nuggets their well-deserved props: pic.twitter.com/WDSyANtyzD— Lakers Nation (@LakersNation) May 23, 2023
The Nuggets found a way to cover up their biggest holes over the years by bringing in a key role player that fit perfectly into their system.
In previous playoff eliminations, their biggest issue was Nikola Jokic having to defend in space. While Jokic is no slouch defensively, he’s not a fleet-footed athlete that could keep up with quicker players in the perimeter. If they kept Jokic in the paint on defense, the Nuggets would be peppered by outside jumpers.
Their solution to that was simple. Bring in longer, more active defenders that could still bother perimeter players while fighting through screens. Having players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Aaron Gordon replace Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Torrey Craig gave the Nuggets a different look on defense. Jokic didn’t need to stay out to defend in the perimeter, he could show on the ball handler, wait for Brown, Gordon, or Caldwell-Pope to recover and then get back into the paint where he was most effective.
It also helps that the three Denver wings were productive on offense as well. Brown and Caldwell-Pope could be counted on to hit the outside shot while Gordon is a great cutter that has developed a mind-meld with Jokic. All three are averaging double-digit scoring in the playoffs this season.
Take note too, Reaves gave Jamal Murray a special mention alongside Jokic. I’ve always believed that Murray raises the ceiling of the team. When he’s playing out of his mind, the Nuggets aren’t just one of the top teams in the league, they’re a dominant championship contender.
Nikola Jokic is proud of what Murray has accomplished this season, especially in the playoffs.
"He's a special player in this league."— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
Nikola Jokic praises his teammate Jamal Murray on his resilience for coming back from injury to play at a high level in this Playoff run 🔊 #NBAConferenceFinals presented by @GooglePixel_US pic.twitter.com/6DvD1XvFTl
If Murray were playing like he did in the regular season, the Lakers would have had an easier time preparing a defensive game plan for the Nuggets. But Murray’s mindset was different as soon as the postseason started. Instead, the Lakers went from having to prepare defensively for Steph Curry and into a Steph Curry clone in Murray.
The Lakers never did find an answer to Murray. He torched them all series long, averaging 32.5 points on 50-40-90 shooting splits. It didn’t matter who the Lakers put on him – Jarred Vanderbilt, Dennis Schroder, D’Angelo Russell, or Austin Reaves. Murray cooked them all. He was an unsolvable puzzle.
The biggest difference between this season and 2020 was Jokic. Literally. Back in 2020, Jokic was an amazing All-Star leading an upstart team. As good as he was, he was still dominated by Anthony Davis in the West Finals then.
This season, he’s considered a top three player in the league, and was the best player in the series. Better than Davis. Better than LeBron.
"Nothing. I know how great he is. I know how great Joker is."— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
LeBron is asked what Nikola Jokic proved during the series 🔊#NBAConferenceFinals presented by @GooglePixel_US pic.twitter.com/HuZ55D32mm
There was nothing timid with how Joker played in this series. He asserted his will in every single game. He used his skill more often than not, lofting shots over Davis or whipping passes past the Laker defense. But he also used brute strength when he needed to.
That was most apparent in Game 4. When the Lakers were threatening to pull away and steal a win, Jokic wouldn’t let them. He ground the Lakers down to turn the game into a tight contest.
With the game on the line, he asked for the ball and had his team clear out. Jokic powered his way past Davis, broke through a double team by Schroder and scored the go-ahead bucket that gave the Nuggets the lead for good. He could have gotten cute and let Murray do his thing or found a cutter with a nifty pass. He didn’t. With a chance to bury the Lakers, Jokic hammered the nail on the coffin himself.
And that just goes to show how different the mindset of the Nuggets are this season compared to 2020.
Back in 2020, Denver was happy to be a third seed in the West Finals. They bent the knee to the King and the Lakers. This season, they’re one of the best teams in the league and they acted like one. The Nuggets faced a lowly seventh and did exactly what they had to do: dominate.
The Nuggets are built different this season. There’s no other way around it.
LeBron says the Nuggets are probably the best team he and AD have faced since they joined the Lakers, and he (literally) tipped his cap to Jokic for some of his ridiculous shots: pic.twitter.com/yN01XI26Bb— Daniel Starkand (@DStarkand) May 23, 2023