It isn't the Western Conference finals matchup most expected, but the Denver Nuggets have more than earned the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in what should be another intriguing series. The Nuggets dispatched the presumptive title favorite Los Angeles Clippers in seven games, becoming the first team to come back from two 3-1 deficits in NBA postseason history. Meanwhile, the Lakers bounced back from a Game 1 loss to eliminate the Houston Rockets with four straight wins.
Denver will once again be the heavy underdog -- as our expert picks indicate -- but that's exactly where it wants to be. Budding superstars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have both played the "nobody believes in us" card already this postseason, with good reason, and the Nuggets are playing with nothing to lose. They face a tough task, however, with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the well-oiled Lakers standing between them and their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.
Below, our NBA experts give their predictions for the Western Conference finals and explain their reasoning.
Series prediction, picks
Bill Reiter: Lakers in 6
The Lakers are the superior team, with the superior stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, with superior postseason experience. The same was true for the Clippers, and yet here we are: Jamal Murray a newly-minted rising superstar, Nikola Jokic with a skill set that can be baffling to try and stop for opposing defenses, and a free-money swagger that will surely carry over from Denver's two 3-1-series comebacks so far these playoffs. Yet LeBron is LeBron, and in a bizarre season in which the Warriors did not factor, Kevin Durant did not play, Giannis and Kawhi have exited early with the Bucks and Clippers, it's hard to see King James making room on the throne just yet, particularly for the Nuggets, impressive though they've been. The series will be hard fought, but this time Denver's magic runs out.
James Herbert: Nuggets in 7
LeBron James could make me look like a total fool -- he's the best in the business at exploiting weak spots, and the Nuggets' defense has a couple of those. But, as Jamal Murray said after shocking the world in the second round, the Lakers have to worry about Denver, too. Nikola Jokic has been more aggressive than ever lately, and the always potent Murray-Jokic two-man game looks unguardable now that Murray is consistently making off-the-dribble 3s and Jokic is firing away without hesitation.
The Lakers turned into a different team in the second round, banishing their bigs and playing an unconventional defense to take advantage of Russell Westbrook's poor shooting and the Rockets' reliance on James Harden. I'm not sure any of that is replicable against the Nuggets, so the concerns that felt urgent after the seeding games -- the absence of Avery Bradley's perimeter defense, poor spacing, James' playmaking burden -- are relevant again. Jokic and Murray have been brilliant individually, but they sent Kawhi Leonard and Paul George home because they were part of a more cohesive and complete team environment. I am skeptical that the Lakers can continue to maximize Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris and the rest of their role players, so I'm cautiously predicting that Denver will burst James and Anthony Davis' bubble the same way.
Colin Ward-Henninger: Lakers in 6
Yeah, yeah. I'm counting out the Nuggets just like they've been counted out in each of the previous two series. While you DM "Old Takes Exposed," I'll explain my thinking. The Lakers had the third-best defense in the regular season and have the third-best defense in the playoffs. They also have a lot more bodies to throw at Nikola Jokic than the Clippers and Jazz did. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have their flaws, but combined with Anthony Davis that gives the Lakers three very large human beings to rotate against Jokic, in addition to occasionally showing him smaller defenders like Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris or even LeBron James. The Clippers essentially had one player who could match up with Jokic's size, Ivica Zubac, who proved to be the most effective of several bad options. I don't think the Lakers will stop Jokic, but they have big bodies and smart defenders on a defense that has done it all year long. Jamal Murray will have his unstoppable moments, but if you at least limit or frustrate Jokic then you cut off the head of the snake given all that he does for Denver. On the other side, the Nuggets can do very little with Davis defensively, and LeBron is LeBron. Ultimately Jokic or Murray will have to be the best player in the series for the Nuggets to win, and (perhaps foolishly) I just don't see that happening.
Brad Botkin: Lakers in 6
Every part of my basketball soul wants to pick the Nuggets. I love everything about them, and indeed, if you look at the typical markers of an elite championship contender, Denver checks every box. Top-end talent? Murray and Jokic are legit stars, the latter an MVP-level big. Depth? The Nuggets go nine deep and have virtually no holes in their starting lineup. Defense? Since going down 3-1 to the Jazz, Denver ranks sixth in playoff defensive rating and just held the Clippers to 89 points in a Game 7; Gary Harris' return has made a huge difference on the perimeter, where the Nuggets are staying in front of the ball and switching and rotating with urgency and discipline. Chemistry? Murray, Jokic, Harris, Mason Plumlee and coach Mike Malone have been together for four years, and Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig have been there for three. Experience? Denver has played in four Game 7s over the past two postseasons, winning three of them. But you know what the Nuggets don't have? LeBron James and Anthony Davis. I hate this pick. I really do. I want to believe the Nuggets can do it again. They're tons of fun. But the Lakers are going to win this series because, simply, they have the two best players in the series. I think it goes six.
Jasmyn Wimbish: Lakers in 5
The Lakers, unlike the Clippers, match up better against the Nuggets, with the length and size to swarm Nikola Jokic, which means that Denver will need to rely heavily on Jamal Murray who has run hot and cold in the playoffs. On defense for the Nuggets, they don't have anyone who can remotely contain LeBron James, on top of trying to keep Anthony Davis from going off. There is the chance that the Nuggets could prove me wrong and shock the world -- again -- but I think they've run out of lives at this point. The Lakers have been locked in this postseason, and I don't think that if they did get up to a 3-1 series lead that they'd squander it.
Michael Kaskey-Blomain: Lakers in 7
Considering the Nuggets don't seem to know that a series can last less than seven games, you can expect this one to go the distance. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit (for the second straight series) to take down the highly-favored Clippers, there's not a team remaining in the bubble that has more momentum to build on than the Nuggets. They already know that they're capable of getting back up after they've been knocked down, and there's a certain freedom that comes with that knowledge. Denver's run has indeed been miraculous, but all good things must come to an end, and the end to this Nuggets run will come at the hands of the Lakers. They have the top two players in the series in LeBron James and Anthony Davis as well as several big bodies to throw at Denver's centerpiece, Nikola Jokic. They also have several options when it comes to guarding Jamal Murray. Denver, on the other hand, won't have an answer for James, or Davis for that matter, and thus it will be extremely tough for it to generate stops down the stretch of games. The Nuggets won't go down without a fight, but the Lakers will ultimately walk away victorious in this series, and in turn make it back to the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade.
Jack Maloney: Lakers in 6
This run the Nuggets have been on is one of the best playoff stories in recent memory. Jamal Murray has come into his own as a true star in the backcourt, Nikola Jokic is playing at an incredible level and they've proven to be incredibly resilient. They've always been able to score, have been much better on the defensive end since the first few games against the Jazz in the first round and have essentially no pressure at this point. They just don't have LeBron James. Obviously there are other factors involved, including the fact that the Lakers have been dominant on both sides of the ball in the postseason. But when it really comes down to it, I just can't pick against "The King" in the playoffs, especially against a team that's never gotten to this stage before.
Sam Quinn: Lakers in 5
The advantages Denver had against the Clippers just don't exist in this series. The Lakers are so big that they might not need to throw a single double team at Nikola Jokic in this entire series. Oh, Jamal Murray is breaking out? Well, the Lakers just beat Damian Lillard and James Harden without much difficulty. We just saw what happened when LeBron James and Anthony Davis got to play against a team without rim protection. Opponents shot 65.4 percent against the Nuggets in the restricted area in the regular season, and considering that number held mostly steady against the Jazz, it seems far likely that the Clippers were responsible for their own struggles. James and Davis were healthy enough to play in two of the three pre-bubble games between these teams. Both were in Denver, and the Lakers won both. The Nuggets are a great story. They aren't a great enough team to truly challenge the Lakers.