September 27, 2020, 2:26 am
The Western Conference is done and dusted for another season. Although it has been a wild and wacky ride, the result many had predicted has finally come to fruition. LeBron James and Anthony Davis powered the Lakers to victory over a gusty Nuggets outfit and will now face the winner of the Heat and Celtics in the 2020 NBA Finals.
King James Rules The West
LeBron showed everyone that he is still the most dominant player in the league, turning in a vintage performance as the Lakers took care of business in Game 5 on Saturday. Despite a few scares, the Lakers were basically in control for the duration and will head into the NBA Finals full of confidence. James scored a game-high 38 points, including 16 in the final quarter as the Nuggets attempted a late comeback. He added 16 rebounds, 10 assists and one steal, rounding out what was the 27th playoff triple-double of his career. He poured in nine straight points down the stretch, sealing the victory with a dagger 3-pointer. Now in his 17th season, Lebron typically picks and chooses his moments, affording himself some rest while on the floor, allowing him to turn things on when needed.
Combining with James to score 65 of the Lakers 117 points, Davis had himself a productive night despite playing through an ankle injury. While he didn’t seem too inconvenienced, he did appear to tweak his ankle during the fourth quarter. However, he remained in the game and should be good to go when the Finals get underway. Davis has been an offensive juggernaut for the Lakers, scoring at least 27 points in all five games during the Western Conference Finals. Oddly, he has been somewhat quiet on the glass, averaging just 6.2 rebounds per contest over that same period. His block numbers have tumbled to just 0.6 per game and both of those are going to have to improve against either the Heat or the Celtics.
Dwight Howard made it two impactful performances in a row, sniffing another double-double, finishing with nine points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. After barely touching the floor during the Rockets series, Howard has certainly made the most of his opportunities in both of the recent victories. Far from the dominant player he once was, Howard has embraced his role as a stop-gap center for the Lakers. The Lakers will now face either the Heat or the Celtics, both of whom could go small for a considerable period. This may result in Howard shifting back to a lesser role moving forward, although that certainly remains to be seen.
Although this was a relatively easy series victory, the bench absolutely needs to be better on most nights. Rajon Rondo has been strong over the past few games but struggled to get anything going on Saturday. Alex Caruso provided his typical defensive tenacity while both Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma were dismal. Kuzma, in particular, has been poor for the Lakers and looks to be struggling on both ends of the floor. His offense is mediocre at best and he has had no impact on the defensive end, often the target of opposing offensive sets.
The Nuggets went down fighting as we all knew they would, but in the end, they were simply outclassed. Jamal Murray left everything on the floor but was clearly hobbled throughout the contest. He has been a warrior for his team throughout the playoffs and has certainly established himself as one of the elite young scorers in the league. Scoring aside, Murray has also flashed his ability to facilitate, averaging 7.4 assists over the past five games. This aspect of his game is something he is going to need to continue to develop, especially as defenses begin targeting him more and more. The hope for next season will be that he can ride this momentum, establishing an element of consistency to his already impressive skill set.
After dominating the Clippers in the previous round, Nikola Jokic failed to have as significant an impact against the sizeable frontcourt of the Lakers. With that being said, he still turned in more than adequate production, averaging 19.8 points on elite percentages to go with 6.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 steals. Jokic has demonstrated his ability to dominate the opposition and the hope will be that he can hit the ground running next season, as opposed to providing us with a slow ramp-up as is usually the case.
Jerami Grant had himself a breakout series, especially over the final three games. During that period he averaged 21.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 2.0 3-pointers. Known for his defensive stopping power, it was his offensive game that shone through, coming as the Nuggets role players struggled to contribute. His role has increased steadily throughout the season and assuming he opts into his player option for next season, he should continue to log heavy minutes moving forward.
The roster is unlikely to undergo major upheaval heading into the 2020-21 season, and the hope now is that the role players can continue to develop their individual games. Michael Porter Jr. thrived during the bubble and while his exact role is unclear, he is undoubtedly going to be a major part of what the Nuggets do next season. Likewise, Monte Morris has proven himself to be a more than serviceable backup and can play at either guard position as required. With Gary Harris struggling to find his form, Morris could find himself in a more consistent role come opening night. The only real question is around Paul Millsap and his lack of consistent production. He will be almost 36 years of age once the season rolls around and his playing time is far from assured. The emergence of Porter and Grant is sure to hurt him even more if in fact he returns for another season.