BettorIQ’s NBA Western Conference Finals Betting Preview
While the entire basketball world outside of the Denver Nuggets’ locker room was waiting on the much-anticipated Battle of Los Angeles to decide who would represent the Western Conference in this season’s NBA Finals, it was not meant to be. The Clippers collapsed under the weight of the pressure and the motivated effort of the Nuggets, who won three straight games to become the first team in NBA history to overcome two straight 3-1 series deficits in a single postseason. Let’s take a look at this unexpected Western Conference Finals matchup, and where bettors may find value in this intriguing encounter.
The Lakers come into this round as prohibitive favorites to advance to the NBA Finals. Currently listed at -650 to win the series, this is reflected in a Game 1 line that has the Nuggets as seven-point underdogs. There’s plenty of reason to feel the Lakers will come through this matchup. The team has been utterly dominant in the playoffs after a surprisingly poor start to bubble play. Los Angeles is 8-2 SU and 7-3 ATS. Superstars Anthony Davis and LeBron James have led the way, with the two All-NBA performers shooting 58.6% and 55.3% from the field, respectively. Both are also over 37% from distance for the postseason. Additionally, they are helping the Lakers play some excellent defense. The team posted a defensive rating of 104.9 in four straight wins against the Rockets in the second round to close out a great Houston offensive team in five games. The Lakers also lead the playoffs in Rebounding Rate at 53.9%. However, this is at least in part to coming up against smaller teams in Portland and Houston in the playoffs so far. The team did out-rebound Denver by an average of 6.5 boards over the four meetings this season, but the Nuggets have been effective rebounding the ball against the Clippers, and posted a Rebounding Rate of 54.1% over the last three games of that series. This blunted what should have been an advantage for the Clippers. If the Nuggets, whose rebounding has improved as youngster Michael Porter Jr. has been given more minutes, can hang tough on the glass, this series could be tighter than anticipated.
However, there are serious matchup problems for the Nuggets here. Paul Millsap, who will likely start in this series, is too small to handle many of the Lakers’ bigs, and too slow to get by its wings. The idea of him having to defend the likes of Anthony Davis is a frightening proposition. Nikola Jokic had his way against the Clippers, but is now set to face off against Davis, whose size and strength can compete against Jokic, but his athleticism and mobility should be a huge advantage for the Lakers. Gary Harris has been brilliant defensively since returning from injury, but is almost certainly too small to deal with LeBron James. This is the crux of the problem for the Nuggets. The Lakers are highly dependent on its two superstars, but both project to be able to get wherever they want on the floor.
In order for the Nuggets to compete in this series, much of its success or lack thereof will come down to whether Jamal Murray can continue his sensational bubble play. Murray has been the breakout star of the NBA restart, and is scoring 27.1 points on 50.2% from the field and 49.1% from distance. His outside shooting is all the more remarkable given that he is taking an average of 7.7 three per game. His production has been so spectacular that if it does continue at this level, the Nuggets should be able to hang around. The Lakers defensive game plan will be critical in this regard. Murray is likely to be defended at first by a combination of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and a resurgent Rajon Rondo. However, it will be very tempting for Lakers boss Frank Vogel to see if LeBron James can shut him down. Conversely, if James is required to put in high-effort man-to-man defense on Murray, it could effect his offensive performance. Although it’s hard to see Murray continuing at his current clip, he has long been focused on precisely a challenge like this. The young guard added almost 15 pounds of muscle so that he could handle the rigors of the postseason, and in particular, a big and physical team like the Lakers.
On paper, this matchup is a bridge too far for the spirited Nuggets. However, the fact is that the team is riding incredibly high right now, and its confidence has never been at this level. Denver has found that rare combination of playing loose and feeling no pressure, but exhibiting great focus at critical moments. Right now, it does feel like anything is possible. If that feeling remains as this difficult series wears on, Denver could be a value play on individual game point spreads. To that point, the Nuggets do deserve serious consideration in Game 1. Unlike the second round, where Denver was destroyed 120-97 against the Clippers after a short rest coming off a huge Game 7 win against Utah, the Nuggets get an extra day of rest here. The combination of momentum and better energy should hold them in good stead in this spot. Meanwhile, the Lakers have shown rust after each of its layoffs during the restart. The team looked discombobulated out of the gates in the bubble. Then, the team dropped both of its Game 1 matchups in the first two rounds, with both defeats coming against what should have been fatigued Portland and Houston teams. It seems that LeBron and his coaching staff need a bit of time to really see what’s in front of them. That was clear in the Houston series, where James noted that his team just could not simulate the speed of the Rockets in a Game 1 loss. After they got a feel, the Lakers rolled to four straight victories. Denver look poised to stay close in this opening game, with an outside shot of stealing Game 1.
Pace will likely be a huge factor in this series. Both of the team’s second-round matchups were played at a snail’s pace, and the UNDER went 10-2 combined. While the Lakers have shown the ability to win at a slower tempo, it’s far more important for the Nuggets to keep proceedings at a crawl. Denver was the second-slowest team in the NBA during the regular season, and were masterful at forcing the Clippers to play a seven-game series at a pace rating of only 95.7. In Denver’s three straight wins to close out the Clippers, that number dropped to 94.5. Los Angeles has an excellent transition offense, while the Nuggets struggle defending in transition. A slow pace will go a long way to limiting quick and easy buckets for the Lakers. If the tempo does stay where it’s been of late for these two clubs, seven points would be a very nice cushion for bettors willing to risk the underdog in Game 1.