LeBron James twice won consecutive NBA MVP awards (2009-10, 2012-13). Nikoa Jokić did it in 2021-22 and finished second this season.
The superstars will take center stage as LeBron’s Los Angeles Lakers take on Jokić’s Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. Game 2 is Thursday in Denver.
The Lakers have put together one of the most unlikely runs in recent history. Los Angeles started 2-10, made several roster moves midway through the season and qualified for the postseason by advancing through the play-in round. And L.A. just eliminated the defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games.
The Lakers became the fourth NBA team to be that many games below .500 and reach the conference finals since conferences were formed after the 1970-71 season.
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The top-seeded Nuggets are back in the Western Conference finals for the first time since losing to the Lakers in 2020 in the bubble in five games.
Jokić is coming off a historic performance as he averaged a triple-double against the Phoenix Suns (34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists).
Jokić’s performance against the Suns was the second-highest scoring average while averaging a triple-double in a playoff series behind Russell Westbrook’s 37.4 points per game in the first round of the 2017 postseason.
Jokić had three triple-doubles in the final four games against the Suns, joining Westbrook, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to have three triple-doubles in a single playoff series.
Los Angeles has won all seven postseason series against Denver.
Let’s look at the series from a betting perspective, with odds via FOX Bet and an expert’s pick for the series.
Lakers drop Game 1 vs. Nuggets
Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe react to the Nuggets winning Game 1 of the Western Conference finals over the Lakers.
Lakers at Nuggets, 8: 30 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN (Nuggets lead series 1-0)
Point spread: Nuggets -6 (Nuggets favored to win by more than 6 points, otherwise Lakers cover)
Moneyline: Nuggets -250 favorites to win (bet $10 to win $14 total); Lakers +170 underdogs to win (bet $10 to win $27 total)
Total scoring over/under: 227 points scored by both teams combined
Nuggets -303 (bet $10 to win $13.30 total)
Lakers +230 (bet $10 to win $33 total)
Schedule and scores for the series (all times 8: 30 p.m. ET):
Game 1: Nuggets 132, Lakers 126
Game 2: Lakers at Nuggets, Thursday, ESPN
Game 3: Nuggets at Lakers, Saturday, ABC
Game 4: Nuggets at Lakers, Monday, ESPN
Game 5: Lakers at Nuggets, May 24, ESPN *
Game 6: Nuggets at Lakers, May 26, ESPN *
Game 7: Lakers at Nuggets, May 28, ESPN *
= if necessary
Oct. 26: Nuggets 110, Lakers 99
Oct. 30: Lakers 121, Nuggets 103
Dec. 16: Lakers 126, Nuggets 108
Jan. 9: Nuggets 122, Lakers 109
LeBron, Lakers advance to Western Conference finals
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers blew out the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 to advance to the Western Conference finals.
Pick via FOX Sports Betting Analyst Jason McIntyre:
As noted in this space earlier in the playoffs, this is a complete Nuggets team with no discernible weakness. They’ll have advantages all over the court, just as they did against Phoenix. The Jokić/Anthony Davis matchup is fascinating, and it’ll be the first time in these playoffs AD will be going against a true center. Jokić is averaging 30.7 PPG, 12.8 RPG and 9.7 APG while shooting 54 from the field and 47 percent on 3-pointers. He’s going to pull AD away from the hoop, and they’ll hope to run a layup line as the Warriors did at times.
From a matchup perspective, do the Lakers put Jarred Vanderbilt on Jamal Murray? Vanderbilt was good against Stephen Curry early, but after adjustments were made, he barely played and his minutes went to Dennis Schröder. Expect Aaron Gordon to match up against LeBron, and when the King goes hunting, it’ll probably be for Michael Porter Jr., who won’t be able to handle LeBron on the block.
Two things working against the Lakers in this series: The schedule, where there is no extra day off, and the altitude, where the Nuggets had the second-best record in the NBA. Denver is 6-0 at home, winning by an average margin of 14.1 points. On the flip side, the Lakers are 7-0 in the postseason at home if you include the play-in victory.
I largely picked the Warriors because I’d never seen them lose to anyone in the West in the Steve Kerr era. Many are going to pick the Lakers because they haven’t seen Nikola Jokić get to the NBA Finals. This is a tough, physical Denver team mixing youth — rookie Christian Braun, 26-year-olds Jamal Murray and Bruce Brown — and former LeBron teammates — Thomas Bryant, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jeff Green.
If you think the Lakers will steal one in Denver, you want to bet their series price (+130) right now. If you think Denver jumps to a 2-0 lead, wait to take the Lakers.
The Lakers won both meetings in Los Angeles this season, but neither came in this calendar year. The role-player question is going to be huge for the Lakers. At times this postseason, it has been Rui Hachimura, Schröder, Austin Reaves or even D’Angelo Russell. Part of the beauty of their team is that all they need is one of those guys to go off to supplement LeBron and AD.
Ultimately, I have the Nuggets winning this one in what should be an epic series.
For player props, I’ll be looking to back Porter Jr. at home and fade him on the road.
PICK: Nuggets to win series in seven games (+300 Bet Boost at FOX Bet, bet $10 to win $40 total)
GAME 1 PICK: Michael Porter Jr. Over 14.5 points (-133 at FOX Bet, bet $10 to win $17.52 total) WIN (Porter had 15 points)
GAME 2 PICK: Michael Porter Jr. Over 15.5 points (-105 at FOX Bet, bet $10 to win $19.50 total)
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