8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Nuggets -5.5, Over/Under: 226.5
The Western Conference Finals rage on in the Rocky Mountains, as the Los Angeles Lakers look to square the series at one game apiece before the scene shifts to the City of Angels, while the Denver Nuggets attempt to secure a commanding 2-0 lead in this Game Two from Ball Arena. Putting all of their star power and luxurious history aside, you would have found very few people, even in Southern California that could have fathomed that the Lakers (43-39, 7th in Western Conference) would advance to this point, though that just goes to show how quickly fortunes can change with a few trades that can unlock a team’s potential. After meandering through roughly two-thirds of the campaign only to completely remake themselves at the Trade Deadline and earning entry into the playoffs via the Play-In, this is a team that has now become the second-lowest seed to reach the Conference Finals. Indeed, (General Manager) Rob Pelinka earned his money in February, parting ways with the likes of (former MVP) Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, Kendrick Nunn, Thomas Bryant, and Juan Toscano-Anderson in exchange for the services of (former Laker) D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, Malik Beasley, and Mo Bamba over the course of three separate deals. As a result, the Lakers owned the best record in the Association post-deadline, with an 18-8 mark down the stretch, thanks in large part to the Association’s best defensive rating over that period, while infusing the rotation with vastly improved spacing, shot creation, and above all else DEPTH. All of those characteristics were on hand in their successive conquests of the Grizzlies and Warriors, each coming in six games, though following their 132-126 defeat at Denver on Tuesday night, it has become clear that they will need to bring a more concerted on the defensive end of the hardwood if they wish to return to the NBA Finals after a two-year absence. Simply put, Game One was a shootout with both sides shooting over 54.0% from the field and 45.0% from beyond the arc. However, (Head Coach) Darvin Ham’s troops found themselves trailing by as many as twenty-one points int he third quarter before putting forth a furious rally in the final period to cut the deficit to just three points. With that said, the visitors simply could not get over the hump, as a pair of missed treys bookending a crucial turnover from (four-time MVP) LeBron James ultimately curtailed their efforts. The hosts outscored them by a dozen points from downtown, while hammering them on the glass (+17) and creating wealth of second-chance opportunities via FIFTEEN offensive rebounds. Looking at the bright side, Los Angeles received a STRONG showing from (eight-time All-Star) Anthony Davis, who erupted for forty points on an efficient 14-of-23 shooting (60.9%) along with ten rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a pair of blocks. Though he’s certainly suffered from his share of off-nights on the offensive end in these playoffs, Davis’s (pictured above) performance in Tuesday’s opener was nothing short of encouraging for the remainder of the series. James finished with twenty-six points on 9-of-16 shooting (56.3%), twelve rebounds and nine assists, while (emerging Guard) Austin Reaves knocked down clutch shot after shot to help key their late rally en route to totaling twenty-three points and eight dimes. However, the x-factor was the contribution of Hachimura (17 points on 8-of-11 shooting), who after keeping his team within striking distance early, played exceptional defense on the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, limiting the two-time MVP to just two points on 1-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter. Look for Ham to utilize the Japan international more frequently on the Serbian giant, which would grant Davis a respite on that end of the hardwood. From a betting perspective, the Lakers were just 48-45-1 against the spread during the regular season, though have been on a tear in that regard during these playoffs, covering nine of their last fifteen contests. Over the last ten games, they are 6-4 straight-up and 7-3 against the spread, while covering five of their last ten trips away from the City of Angels. Ham’s charges have been a solid bet as underdogs, posting a 7-3 mark over their last ten outings when receiving points from the oddsmakers, which is once again the case tonight, though Game One saw them split the proverbial baby, losing the game outright yet managing to cover the line by the slimmest of margins. Furthermore, they have won four of their past ten meetings with the Nuggets straight-up, while mustering a similar 5-4-1 record against the spread. With that said, they are a promising 3-1-1 in their last five encounters as an underdog. Lastly, after erupting for 126 points, the Lakers could be due for a more subdued offensive performance, for they have covered the spread just ONCE in their last nine games after scoring more than 125 points. On the injury front, the aforementioned Bamba was questionable to make his return from a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the final few outings of the Western Conference Semifinals, and could get back into action tonight, with his size and length serving as a potential boon in defending Jokic (MUCH more on him shortly). Despite coming up short on Tuesday night, Los Angeles has NEVER lost a series to Denver in seven encounters, with the only time they had dropped a Game One coming all the way back in 1979, when the first round was a best-of-three set, which LA rallied back to win. Historically, the Lakers have been dominant frontrunners in the playoffs, but it has been a far different story when they have failed to draw first blood, posting a dismal 19-36 series record (.345) when losing Game One.
Meanwhile, looking at how the playoffs have unfolded on this particular side of the bracket, you can’t fault the Nuggets (53-29, 1st in Western Conference) and their fans for feeling confident in the likelihood of their advancing to the NBA Finals, which would be a first for the franchise. If there was one constant in the wild, unpredictable Western Conference, it was certainly Denver, who sat comfortably atop the standings for the bulk of the regular season. While they may have lacked the championship pedigree or outright star power of some of their contemporaries, they were by far and away the most consistent group out West and in a season in which there were so many injuries plaguing their fellow contenders, they were without a doubt the healthiest. Oh, it also certainly didn’t hurt having two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic, in their lineup, with the towering Serbian putting together yet another statistically superb campaign; the five-time All-Star Center certainly made his case for a third consecutive Most Valuable Player award, posting averages of 24.8 points per game on a highly-efficient 63.2% shooting from the field, along with 11.8 rebounds, 9.8 assists (an NBA record for Centers), and 1.3 steals, while netting a stellar 38.3% of his attempts from beyond the arc. With that said, Jokic (pictured above) has been a bonafide star destroyer for a number of years now, while the supporting cast around has left a bit to be desired largely due to injuries. Well, that has NOT been the case this season, for (Head Coach) Mike Malone has what has been easily the best rotation at his disposal during his time in Denver; (young sharpshooter) Jamal Murray is finally healthy after tearing his ACL during the latter stages of the 2020-2021 season, putting up 20.0 points on 45.4% shooting and 39.8% from three, along with a career-high 6.2 assists in sixty-five games, while Michael Porter Jr. (17.4 PPG on 48.7% shooting and 41.4% from three in a career-high 62 starts) has been healthy and productive as the third scoring option, with the likes of Aaron Gordon (a crucial addition at last year’s trade deadline), along with (useful veterans) such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have added more options and versatility to the rotation. After handling their business in their gentlemen’s sweep of the Timberwolves in the first round, then finishing off the Suns in six games, the Nuggets kept their home record in this postseason unbeaten with Tuesday night’s 132-126 victory over the Lakers in Game One. For long stretches of this contest, the hosts were easily the better side thanks to an offensive onslaught that was nothing short of impressive even in this era of basketball. Denver shot 54.9% on the game, though really turned up the heat in the third quarter in which they netted an insane 14-of-20 of their attempts from the field (70.0%), including 6-of-9 from beyond the arc (66.7%), as both Jokic and Caldwell-Pope wet off for twelve points and a pair of treys. Speaking of Jokic, the big fella was once again sublime, authoring yet another triple-double, adding to his NBA playoff record of TWELVE, with thirty-four points on 12-of-17 shooting (70.6%), twenty-one rebounds, and fourteen assists. In fact, it was the second time in his playoff career that he managed a 30/20/10 stat line, passing the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who are the only players to have ever registered such a feat. With that said, he certainly had plenty of help, with FIVE other Nuggets scoring in double-figures, including the aforementioned Murray, who finished with thirty-one points, five boards, and five dimes, while KCP torched his former employers for twenty-one points. The only downside to that performance for Denver was the fact they allowed Los Angeles to climb back into the contest, thanks in large part to their inability to really slow them down; the Lakers shot 54.8% on the night, including 11-of-24 from downtown (45.8%), while dishing out thirty assists in comparison to committing a mere seven turnovers. From a betting perspective, the Nuggets have been a strong team against the spread, posting a solid 52-41 record during the regular season, followed by a 7-5 mark in that regard in these playoffs. Denver has covered the number in five of their last ten games regardless of the opponent or venue, though has been stellar at home with records of 9-1 straight-up and 7-3 against the spread in their past ten outings in the high altitude of Ball Arena. Furthermore, they have yet to lose a game at home in this postseason, while covering all but two of those seven affairs. Despite being just 4-5-1 against the spread versus the Lakers in their last ten meetings, Malone’s charges are 4-4-2 in that regard over their last ten encounters in Colorado. On the injury front, this is a team that is completely healthy at the moment, for the last time that we could say that about them in the playoffs was way back in that aforementioned battle with the Lakers in the Bubble. We touched upon their postseason history with Los Angeles earlier, with Tuesday night’s victory marking just the second occasion in seven encounters that they managed to take Game One and the first time in FORTY-FOUR years. Over the course of their franchise history, the Rich & Creamys have logged a 10-9 series record (.523) when drawing first blood in the playoffs.