- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
So much has changed since the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets clashed in this round three seasons ago in the Orlando bubble — and yes, the reappearance of all four bubble semifinalists lends their 2020 runs some credibility ballast they never needed anyway.
The bubble was different, but that never made what anyone achieved (or failed to achieve) there any less meaningful. It was the only option. There was a four-month break, no fans, a friendlier shooting background and no travel. Every contender dealt with the same conditions. Some quaked. Some rose up.
The Lakers then, as now, were win-now contenders. The Nuggets were newbies, usurpers, uninvited crashers of the presumed Battle for Los Angeles conference finals between the Lakers and the LA Clippers.
Only Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Vlatko Cancar remain from that 2020 Denver team. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only Lakers holdovers. Injuries have dotted their head-to-head games since. All four of their matchups this season came before the Lakers traded Russell Westbrook.
In those conference finals, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope guarded Murray; now he starts alongside Murray. Those Lakers played traditional centers, sparing Davis the Jokic assignment on defense — and giving Jokic safer landing spots on Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee. Barring an improbable Mohamed Bamba reemergence, the Lakers don’t even play a traditional center beyond Davis. Would they dare toss Tristan Thompson into this?
Denver had quietly been building toward that 2020 run, even if it seemed to most like a surprise. It won 46 games in 2017-18, missing the playoffs on the last day of the season after losing a winner-gets-the-eighth-seed finale on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the team’s flight home, Jokic strode from row to row, thanked everyone and vowed the Nuggets would soon take the next step, officials have said.
They advanced to the second round the next season, losing Game 7 at home to the Portland Trail Blazers. That summer, eyeing the big wings poised to rule the West, they traded for Jerami Grant; Grant guarded James in the bubble conference finals. Grant’s departure in free agency and crushing injuries shoved Denver sideways — and obscured that Denver never really stopped building.
Jokic became an unstoppable MVP machine. Porter developed into an ideal third option, and learned how to rotate within Denver’s frenetic defense. The Nuggets decided at the 2021 trade deadline they were ready for it all, and acquired Aaron Gordon to fill Grant’s vacancy — betting that Gordon’s heft, defense, rebounding and cutting would prove a better fit alongside Jokic.
For eight games, the Murray/Jokic/Porter/Gordon quartet was utterly dominant. Then Murray tore his ACL, missing the 2021 playoffs and all of last season. The Nuggets waited. As Murray (and Porter) recovered, the front office tweaked, stocking the roster with 3-and-D wings who could get around screens and guard up in size.
They have been building to this moment, now.
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