8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lakers -3, Over/Under: 224
On the verge of making franchise history, the Denver Nuggets stand one game away from advancing to their first-ever NBA Finals, as the fading Los Angeles Lakers simply look to avoid the sweep and prolong this Western Conference Final as Game Four gets set to tip off tonight from crypto.com Center. For the first time in their fifty-six seasons as a franchise, the Nuggets (53-29, 1st in Western Conference) stand forty-eight minutes away from reaching the NBA Finals, which is something that feels all but inevitable given their commanding 3-0 lead in a series in which they have clearly proven to be the superior team. So, let’s take a moment to look back on how they got here, shall we? If there was one constant in the wild 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 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, and it also certainly didn’t hurt having (two-time MVP) Nikola Joki, 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 has been a bonafide star destroyer for a number of years now, while the supporting cast around him 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, 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 with relative ease against the Timberwolves and Suns in the first two rounds of these playoffs, the Nuggets have quickly dispelled any notions of being at a disadvantage against the Lakers, who eliminated them in this very same stage of the postseason three years ago, due to any perceived lack of experience or killer instinct. Indeed, Malone’s troops have been downright ruthless in their execution of Los Angeles and the numbers tell the whole story; Jokic & Co have torched their opponent for an average of 119.7 points per game on a blistering 49.6% shooting in this series, including 46-of-111 from beyond the arc (41.4%) where they have earned +51 advantage through three games (+17.0 per game), while outright bullying them on the glass (+6.7), particularly on the offensive end where they have rebounded a whopping 24.6% of their misses, granting them a healthy advantage in terms of second-chance points. As the Lakers continue to shift their coverages of Jokic, who continues to wake up and average a triple-double like it’s simply routine (27.0/14.7/11.3), the supporting cast has been essential to establishing this 3-0 lead, particularly Murray (pictured above), who has been nothing short of sublime thus far; the 26-year-old has averaged 35.0 points on 52.1% shooting and 45.5% from downtown, along with 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists, including at least thirty points in each of the first three games of this series, becoming the first player in franchise history to do so in any particular postseason set. The Canadian international erupted for twenty-three points in the fourth quarter of Denver’s comeback to take Game Two at Ball Arena, before carrying his side throughout the first half of Saturday night’s 119-108 triumph in Los Angeles, scoring all but seven of his thirty-seven points in the first half. In fact, the fourth period is where the Nuggets have THRIVED of late in this series, for in Games Two and Three they have outscored the Lakers 67-50, shooting a stellar 55.2% from the floor and 50.0% from three. 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 an 8-6 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, while matching that mark in their last ten trips away from Mile High. Malone’s charges are 6-4 against the spread in their ten affairs as an underdog, while covering five of their past ten when receiving points opposite of the Lakers. 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 Los Angeles in the Bubble. While a victory tonight in the City of Angels would send the Nuggets to their first-ever NBA Finals, it would also represent a couple of other firsts for the franchise, who would also achieve their first series sweep in postseason history in addition to besting the Lakers for the first time in five playoff encounters.
Meanwhile, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s getting late early” for the Lakers (43-39, 7th in Western Conference), who are staring down the barrel of a potential postseason sweep just one round shy of the NBA Finals. Needless to say, this is a disappointing predicament for any franchise, but for one that has participated in more Finals (32) than any in the long history of the Association and holds the joint lead for most NBA Championships (17), this is particularly crushing. Indeed, Los Angeles has been swept on just ten occasions, with this one potentially marking their first since 2013 at the hands of the Spurs. This is even more disappointing for one, LeBron James, with the four-time MVP aiming for his fifth Larry O’Brien trophy in this, his TWENTIETH season in the NBA. While there is absolutely no debating the legacy of James (pictured above), a four-time NBA Champion with three different franchises and the league’s all-time leading scorer, this series has been nothing short of a disappointment to the 38-year-old. Sure, the numbers would suggest that Bron has been Bron in this series, averaging 23.7 points on 48.1% shooting, along with 9.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.3 blocks, but the devil is always in the details, folks, and when you look a little deeper you will find some noticeable cracks in the king’s armor. First and foremost, he has been TERRIBLE from beyond the arc, netting a miserable 3-of-19 triples thus far (15.8%), with many of these misses coming late in close games during stretches where the momentum has shifted towards Denver. Sure, James has never been considered anything remotely close to a great three-point shooter, draining a modest 34.5% for his career and 32.1% this season, but it has been frustrating watching him settle so often for shots that simply aren’t considered high percentage. We also must consider his health though, for the nineteen-time All-Star missed thirteen games down the stretch of the regular season due to a foot injury than has been considered serious enough to warrant surgery. This would explain his lack of explosion late in games, such as the missed layup that could have potentially tied the score in the waning moments of Game Two. That, combined with his advanced age, also explains his struggles in the fourth quarter of these games, in which he’s shot just 35.2% from the field and a dismal 1-of-9 from three (11.1%). And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the king has found himself on the verge of what would be just the third sweep of his career and the first to take place prior to the NBA Finals. With all that said, (Head Coach) Darvin Ham’s troops have had a wealth of other issues in this affair that are contributing to their demise apart from the play just James, with many of the new faces that arrived at the Trade Deadline offering very little through the first three contests. At the top of the list is (veteran Point Guard) D’Angelo Russell, who in his second stint with the franchise that drafted him second overall back in 2015 has become nigh unplayable; the 27-year-old has been a serious liability on the defensive end, while his shooting has been abysmal, netting just 29.6% of his attempts overall and 2-of-14 from three (14.3%), this from a guy who shot a stellar 41.4% from downtown following his trade from Minnesota. And here has been the most damning statistic: the Nuggets are +51 thus far when Russell has been on the court. Furthermore, (versatile defender) Jarred Vanderbilt, who was also part of that same trade with the Wolves, has seen his minutes diminish with each passing game due to his offensive liabilities, though he simply hasn’t proven to be effective in slowing down the aforementioned Murray either. And then there is (eight-time All-Star) Anthony Davis, who continues to frustrate the fan base with his erratic play from one game to the next; after erupting for forty points in Game One, the Brow came back to Earth with eighteen points on 4-of-15 shooting (26.7%) in Game Two, before coming back to life with twenty-eight points and eighteen rebounds over the weekend. However, there have been some bright spots for the Lakers, with the young tandem of Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura playing well beyond their years, with the former averaging 22.7 points on 55.0% shooting and 13-of-23 from three (56.5%) along with 4.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists, while the latter has played himself into the starting lineup with 17.0 points on an efficient 63.6% shooting, while playing particularly tough defense on the aforementioned Jokic. With both players set to hit free agency this summer, expect Los Angeles to make it a priority to retain their services. 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 ten of their last fifteen contests. Over the last ten games, they are 7-3 against the spread, while matching that record in their last ten games at the friendly confines of crypto.com Center. Ham’s charges have been a solid bet as favorites, posting a 4-1 mark over their last five outings when fancied points from the oddsmakers. Furthermore, they have covered eight consecutive games in which they are favored between 0.5 to 4.5 points, while riding a seven-game win streak against the spread following a straight-up loss of ten or more points, with both scenarios being the case tonight. On the injury front, the status of James and Davis, who are both nursing ailing right feet, is always worth monitoring, though (young Center) Mo Bamba is expected to make his series debut tonight after missing the last six games due to a sprained right ankle, with his size and length serving as a potential solution in defending Jokic. While no team in NBA history has ever rallied back to win a series after falling behind 0-3, the numbers suggest that this could be over soon enough for Los Angeles; in the 149 instances in which a team has trailed 0-3, only THREE of them have even managed to force a Game Seven. Furthermore, the Lakers have NEVER even forced a Game Five when facing such an elimination scenario. As for James, this marks only the fourth time that he has trailed a series by three games, with the only time that his side has managed to prolong their fate being the 2017 NBA Finals, which saw his Cavaliers fall to the Warriors in five games.