Nuggets vs. Lakers NBA Betting Preview: Western Conference Finals Odds, Picks, & Predictions
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On the brink of elimination not once but twice, the Denver Nuggets did the unthinkable, becoming the first team in NBA history to rally from multiple 3-1 deficits in the playoffs. The first time, against the Utah Jazz, it was impressive. The second time, knocking out the Los Angeles Clippers, who were the betting favorites to win the 2020 NBA Finals, it was shocking.
The city’s name will be stitched into different jerseys, with different colors, worn by different superstars than the ones the Nuggets played against on Wednesday and the six games before that.
While the Clippers were favored to win the NBA Finals before the playoffs began, it’s the Lakers and Lebron James who pose the toughest test for Denver’s ambitious youth. Despite phenomenal play from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic thus far, the cards remain stacked against the Nuggets, according to NBA oddsmakers.
Denver Nuggets vs. L.A. Lakers Betting Odds
Lakers, James Rest while Nuggets Work
The Nuggets played 14 games between August 17 and September 15. Minutes after completing their first comeback, Murray, 23, was clearly exhausted, lamenting the news ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt broke to him in an impromptu post-game interview: His squad would only have one day’s rest before playing Game 1 against that other Los Angeles basketball team.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have played four fewer games during that same span, beating both the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets decisively 4-1, and leaving themselves with nearly a full week of rest between the Western Conference semifinals and finals.
This time the Nuggets will operate on two days of rest Friday night, but that might not be enough to get them over the hump in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
In their first game against the Clippers, the Nuggets were blown out 120-97. If that is any indication of what’s ahead, then the Lakers -6.5 in Game 1 is a solid bet.
In fact, that’s where NBA bettors are throwing their money. Per ScoresAndOdds, 71% of spread bets are backing the Lakers, 98% of moneyline bets like the Lakers to win outright, and most are anticipating a relatively high-scoring affair, as 80% are on the Over.
If only betting on basketball was so simple.
The Lakers, too, lost Game 1 in the conference semis in addition to the opening game of the NBA playoffs. Los Angeles started slow in both series. After a week of no competitive basketball, they might look rusty Friday night. Or they might use their fresh legs to run the Nuggets up and down the court.
On the other side of the bracket, the well-rested Heat have jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the Celtics, who similarly played seven games in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Long story short, making a play based on how the Nuggets performed in their most recent Game 1 and the Lakers dropping both series openers is not advised. A three-game sample size is nowhere large enough to give us a signal. A more promising betting angle will be found by digging a bit deeper and dissecting the Nuggets-Lakers matchup.
Nuggets’ Matchup Problems with Lakers’ Bigs
Lakers and Clippers players both deal with the insanity that is L.A. traffic, play their regular season games in the same arena, and have emerged as two of the best teams after make major moves in the offseason, however, the similarities end when you look at how the two teams match up defensively with the Nuggets offense.
With Denver’s offense often running through Nikola Jokic, the Clippers had a difficult time taking the jokes he dished out — laughable passes (one-handed and no-look) accompanied by a smooth shooting stroke and a record-breaking rebounding performance that left friends, foes, and neutral observers ticklish by the absurdity of it all.
Doc Rivers’ only rebuttal was to start Ivica Zubac, playing him more than 24 minutes per game, 33 percent more than he averaged during the regular season. That left 6-foot-7-inch Montrez Harrell playing only 18 minutes compared to his normal 24.
The Clippers weren’t the only team forced to make adjustments in Round 2. The Lakers successfully played small ball against the Rockets, but they’re actually well-suited to play big. The Lakers’ roster includes three prominent players that are at least 6’10: Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and Javale McGee.
Howard and McGee combined to average only 34 minutes per game against the Rockets but they’re due to see more playing time in the Western Conference Finals. Despite Davis being voted to the NBA All-Defensive First Team twice and leading the league in blocks on three separate occasions, Lakers head coach, Frank Vogel, will likely try to keep Davis out of early foul trouble and away from Jokic, who, if not Davis himself, is the best big man in the NBA.
The presence of versatile bigs wearing purple and gold means Jokic is more likely to operate from outside, on the perimeter, and sometimes a bit closer on the elbows, than inside on the block.
McGee and Howard were a tough crowd for the Joker during the regular season.
During their four meetings, the duo held Jokic to 16.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, a far cry from the respective 24.4 and 13.3 he posted against the Clippers.
Ultimately, it is the Lakers who have the edge defensively, making it difficult to bet on the Nuggets despite their +450 odds, an 18.2% implied chance of advancing to the NBA Finals according to oddsmakers.
That doesn’t make the Lakers’ price to win the series, -625 at DraftKings Sportsbook, a bargain.
Lakers Beware: Unprecedented Bubble, Unexpected Results
So far, underdogs knocked out both two-seeds and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The Miami Heat, a five-seed, currently hold a two-game lead over the third-seeded Boston Celtics.
What we’ve seen transpire inside the Orlando bubble feels unprecedented. While it’s no surprise for longshots to slide into the Stanley Cup Finals, they usually fall flat in the NBA Playoffs.
Going back to 2009, no team who made it to the NBA Finals was larger than a +2800 longshot to win the NBA Finals on the first day of the regular season. This season the Heat opened as +6000 underdogs. Now they’re just two wins away from being among the final two teams standing in the NBA Finals.
In fact, the Bucks’ loss to the Heat ranks as one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history, and the Nuggets had less than a 1% chance of advancing at one point during Game 5!
What one might consider a “lock” under normal circumstances is no such thing inside the NBA bubble. (And if you’ve bet enough games, you know “locks” never existed in the first place.)
Thanks to the bubble there’s been a balance of power between the conference hegemons and playoff underdogs, most likely due to the absence of home-court advantage, as well as other less quantifiable factors from the long, COVID-induced hiatus that, to the delight of NBA fans and contrarian sports bettors, beautifully disrupted the laws of postseason basketball at the peril of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Pascal Siakam. Might LeBron James be next?
If the early departures of other NBA betting favorites don’t incite any sense of trepidation, then sign up at PointsBet to lay -526 odds on the Lakers to advance past the Western Conference Finals — meaning you risk $52.6 for every $10 you want to win on the Lakers beating the Nuggets in this best-of-seven series.
But with NBA betting odds available for Game 1 and each subsequent Western Conference Finals game, betting on the series result is by no means necessary.
How to Bet the Nuggets-Lakers in the WCF
Rather than throwing all your eggs in one basket by picking a series winner before the Western Conference Finals even begin, take the Nuggets-Lakers matchup one game at a time.
It’s not just prudent, but there’s often value in doing so. To see why, read what I wrote before the Heat-Bucks series.
This time, I like the favorites.
Pre-bubble, the Lakers were 2-1 against the Nuggets, covering the spread in both of their road victories. Their loss came at home but without James in the lineup.
Nuggets bettors need Jokic and Murray, plus “(player-popup #michael-porter-jr)Michael Porter Jr, all to continue to exceed expectations not just to win but to cover the spread. Murray, hitting a ridiculous 49% of his three-pointers in the playoffs, enters the Western Conference Finals as a premier regression candidate, as does Rajon Rondo, who shot an abnormal 44% from the arc after returning to the hardwood against the Rockets. But the Lakers, with their trio of athletic big men, have proven capable of neutralizing Jokic, making King James & Co. dangerous opponents to bet against.
I’m betting on the Lakers -6.5 in Game 1.
Image Credit: USA Today Sports Images