2023 NBA Playoffs: Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets Western Conference Finals betting preview

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Los Angeles Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets Western Conference Finals Betting Preview

The top-seeded Denver Nuggets and seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers begin their battle for a spot in the NBA Finals on Tuesday, May 16th. These teams clashed in the Western Conference Finals back in 2020, when the Lakers beat the Nuggets in a five-game series inside the Orlando bubble.

 

Since that series, the Nuggets have truly entered the NBA’s elite tier, with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. and a big trade for Aaron Gordon playing a huge part in that. Meanwhile, the Lakers have mostly experienced lows since that extreme high, but they are back in business now.

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Both teams are coming into the series with some serious momentum, as the Nuggets earned a 25-point road win over the Phoenix Suns in a Game 6 at the Footprint Center on Thursday, May 11th. Phoenix was the favorite to win the NBA title after having added Kevin Durant to a core that included Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. But the Nuggets never thought they were the underdogs in that series, and they went out and significantly outplayed the Suns. The Lakers did the exact same thing against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who were still led by the championship core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

The Nuggets enter the Western Conference Finals as the favorites to win the series, with Denver being listed at -160 at DraftKings Sportsbook. However, I’d suggest backing Los Angeles in this series, and there are a few reasons why.

The main reason to worry about the Nuggets is that they still have quite a few defenders that can be exploited by the right offense. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are two guys that really can’t guard anyone, and Porter is still a question mark defensively. The 24-year-old has made some significant improvements on that end of the floor over the years, but I have a hard time believing that he’d be able to keep a guy like LeBron James in front of him. There’s a reason the Nuggets were only the 15th-ranked team in the league in defensive rating this season, and those guys had a lot to do with it.

The reason all that is so dangerous for Denver is that LeBron is one of the best players in the league when it comes to hunting mismatches. He picked on Curry’s defense endlessly in the series against Golden State, which is why Los Angeles was able to emerge in that series despite not being a great offensive team. Paul might have been able to do something similar for the Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals, but he ended up getting hurt in Game 2. Now, Denver has to deal with arguably the sharpest mind in the history of the game, and how the team handles that test will likely determine the outcome of this series.

The other big X-factor in this series is how Jokic plays in his matchup with Anthony Davis. There’s no such thing as shutting down a player of Jokic’s caliber, but if he’s not the best player in this series by a wide margin then the Lakers are going to the Finals. And that’s ultimately why I like Los Angeles to win this series, as I think Davis will do well enough with the assignment to slow down a Denver offense that is scoring 118.7 points per 100 possessions in the postseason. Davis has the combination of size, length and timing to disrupt Jokic, whether it’s as his primary defender or as something of a free safety. And if the Lakers can slow Jokic down, the entire Nuggets offense will suffer.

It should, however, be noted that there are probably some better ways to bet on Los Angeles than to take the team at +135 before the series. For example, it might make more sense to take Davis to win the Western Conference Finals MVP award at +350. If Los Angeles wins this series, it’s hard to imagine it not being Davis that takes home those honors. Sure, all the narratives with the Lakers run through LeBron, but Davis is the best player on this team now and everybody knows it. And it’ll be his all-world defense that ends up making the difference in the event Los Angeles wins, as the Lakers put a lot of responsibility on his injury-prone shoulders. And Davis will need to do some special things in order to slow down this absurd Nuggets offense. 

Another option would be to wait until after Game 1 to jump on Los Angeles. The Nuggets are likely going to handle their business in the series opener, as they are one of the toughest teams in the league to beat on their own home floor — due to a great fanbase and the unique altitude. But the Lakers will be a little more prepared in Game 2, which is when this series should really get interesting. Not only will Los Angeles be ready for the elements, but the team will also have some time to adjust to what it saw in Game 1. The Lakers have been great at adjusting throughout this postseason, which is a credit to both LeBron and head coach Darvin Ham. Nuggets head coach Mike Malone can be a little stubborn when it comes to making changes, which is yet another reason to be hesitant about Denver. 

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