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What the Lineup Data Reveals About Who Holds the Edge in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals

By: Taylor Bechtold

It was supposed to be the Battle of Los Angeles. Lakers vs. Clippers. LeBron and AD against Kawhi and PG13.

That’s the Western Conference finals showdown everyone expected and seemingly wanted ever since the LeBron James-led Lakers acquired Anthony Davis and the Clippers added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the offseason. The never-say-die Denver Nuggets, however, had other plans as they crashed the LA bash in historic fashion.

The third-seeded Nuggets joined the 1985 Kansas City Royals and the 2003 Minnesota Wild as the only teams in MLB/NBA/NHL history to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a series twice in the same postseason. After rallying past the sixth-seeded Utah Jazz, Denver erased a 12-point deficit to stun the No. 2 Clippers 104-89 in Game 7 of the West semifinals.

Like it or not, the third conference finals meeting between these franchises will get underway Friday night in Orlando. In the other two matchups, the Showtime Lakers took down Alex English and Denver in five games in 1985 and Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol led Los Angeles past Carmelo Anthony’s Nuggets 4-2 in 2009. In both of those years, the Lakers went on to win the NBA championship.

Let’s start with the obvious – or maybe not so obvious. The Nuggets need to get more out of the lineups they rely on the most or they could find themselves in another deep hole – a position they prefer not to be in again, believe it or not.

Denver has gotten minus-5, minus-23.2, plus-0.7, minus-21.8, minus-23.8 and minus-35.9 net ratings from the six lineups it has featured the most this postseason.


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

Those units have particularly struggled defensively – even with stopper Torrey Craig on the floor, accruing 139.5, 145.8 and 133.9 ratings. The Nuggets have reached the conference finals despite owning the sixth-worst defensive rating (112.9) in these playoffs.

Albeit in a smaller sample size (fewer possessions), the Nuggets have done a better job containing opponents when going to a smaller lineup with a combination of Monte Morris, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris in the backcourt, Craig at small forward and either Jerami Grant or Michael Porter Jr. in at power forward for Paul Millsap.

LeBron James

That adjustment could set up an interesting matchup since Los Angeles has been at its best offensively when it has gone smaller this postseason.

The Lakers own the second-best offensive rating of these playoffs (113.1) and the three lineups they’ve used the most in the playoffs have 130.9, 136.1 and 163.8 offensive ratings, though only one of those units feature a traditional center (JaVale McGee).

The smaller units proved critical in helping Los Angeles win four straight against the center-less Houston Rockets after dropping Game 1.

Of course, superstars James (26.6 points per game) and Davis (27.6), lead the Los Angeles attack. In the two lineups they’ve gone to the most that include both, the Lakers have plus-22 and plus-58.6 net ratings.

The star tandem has certainly given the Nuggets a hard time – Davis averaged 29.3 points on 54.4% shooting in the four regular-season meetings, while James put up 28.7 points and 11.7 assists in his three games.


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

After they were seldom on the floor against the Rockets, McGee and Dwight Howard are likely to see much more action as the Lakers attempt to combat star big man Nikola Jokic, who was dominant in the Clippers series. He averaged 26.0 points, 15.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists while hitting 15 of 36 (41.7%) from 3-point range in the last six games of that semifinal, including a triple-double in the first three quarters of Game 7.

Los Angeles has a decent 108.9 defensive rating in its most-used lineup this postseason (351 possessions): Caldwell-Pope, Green, James, Davis and McGee. The club hasn’t been consistent at either end in the three most-used lineups with Howard at center (see chart below), managing a negative net rating in all three.

Expect the Lakers to use a combination of McGee, Howard, James, Davis, Kuzma and Morris on Jokic much like they did when they limited him to 16.3 points, 5.8 boards and 5.8 assists while winning three of the four regular-season meetings.


PGSGSFPFCPoss.Off. RatingDef. RatingNet

In the midst of a breakout postseason, Jamal Murray presents a different but familiar challenge for the Lakers. After averaging a career-high 18.5 points during the regular season, the fourth-year guard is putting up 27.1 per game while sinking 53 of 108 (49.1%) from beyond the arc. He has two 40-point performances and two 50-point efforts in these playoffs.

Nikola Jokic

This will be the third straight high-scoring point guard the Lakers have faced this postseason. Damian Lillard averaged 28.7 points – slightly under his 30.0 season average – on 41.8% shooting in three games before getting injured in Game 4 of that first-round series, and Russell Westbrook managed 19.8 points per game – well under his 27.2 season average – on 42.4% shooting in the semifinals.

Reserve guard Alex Caruso played a key role in those defensive efforts, and he’s likely to spend some time on Murray in this series. In fact, seven of the Lakers’ top eight defensive lineups this postseason have included Caruso. And Los Angeles has the third-best defensive rating (103.0) during these playoffs.

The Lakers own the advantage at both ends of the court and have the top net rating (10.1) of the playoffs. As a result, we can envision the Nuggets falling behind 3-1 yet again before putting a scare into the Lakers by winning Game 5. Focused and determined to put Denver away for good, Los Angeles survives a difficult series in six games.


Data modeling and analysis provided by Matt Scott.

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