By pulling off consecutive 3-1 series comebacks the Denver Nuggets have not only etched their name in NBA history but also booked their fourth Conference Finals appearance in franchise history, locking in a matchup against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Two of Denver's three previous Conference Finals appearances were also against the Lakers (1985) including the last one in 2009. Just like that epic series, this one also has three All-Stars - two on the Lakers in James and Anthony Davis, and one on the Nuggets in Nikola Jokic.
With a berth to the NBA Finals at stake, it would be safe to assume that a lot rides on the All-Stars.
MORE: Lakers-Nuggets series preview
We all know that big games would be needed from James, Davis, Jokic, and Jamal Murray to make this series an entertaining, competitive one, but what are the other key aspects of this matchup that could decide the winner? Take a look at the biggest deciding factors for each team of the Western Conference Finals:
Will Playoff Rondo show up again?
The 14-year veteran played a huge role in the Lakers' five-game Conference Semifinals series against the Rockets with averages of 10.6 points, 7.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.0 steals in just 26.6 minutes of playing time. He stepped into the role as the Lakers' third-best player and over the five games, the Lakers outscored the Rockets by a net margin of 27 when Rondo was on the floor.
He seemed to have found his range in the series, knocking down eight 3-pointers on 18 attempts, playing a huge role in dissecting the Rockets defence game after game.
The Lakers are at their best when they are on the run. They dominate their opponents in transition, ranking atop the league in fastbreak points but Rondo gives them a reliable experienced off-the-bench floor general. That's not all, his positive impact reduces the ball-handling load on LeBron, which is bound to unleash him that much more.
MORE: The numbers behind Denver's remarkable run
Not taking anything away from Rondo, but the Nuggets' defensive matchups are going to be very different. Was his performance against Houston a result of a specific matchup or was it a sign of things to come all throughout this postseason for the Lakers?
Rookie Michael Porter Jr. could be a huge matchup problem for the Lakers. The ease with which he scores means that even if he's not actually scoring, his mere presence opens things up for the rest of his teammates.
If Lakers were to throw some of their good individual defenders on him, that's taking a credible body off the Nuggets' other threats.
Yes, the rookie has been picked on by opponents on defence and should expect similar treatment from Los Angeles but in his limited minutes, his offensive impact is undeniable. In Game 5 against the Clippers, in 22 minutes, he only knocked down one field goal but that was a big 3-pointer that came at a crucial point. He then followed that up with a clutch block and a pair of free throws to seal the game. His +/- was plus-13 in that 111-105 Game 5 win.
MPJ came up big time with the three AND the block 💪 pic.twitter.com/nfszUL9OYL- SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 12, 2020
Of Denver's 14 games, Porter Jr. has recorded a negative +/- just four times and three of those came in losses, where the Nuggets were outscored by a combined margin of 79 points. On average, he scores 11.1 points on 44.8% shooting from the field in 24.5 minutes with a +/- of 3.9.
More importantly, in Denver's wins, he's a +9.1 in 23.8 minutes on the floor. It'll be interesting to watch how long head coach Mike Malone leaves him out on the floor, especially with all-time level floor generals in LeBron and Rondo almost always on the court for the Lakers.
Jerami Grant's two-way value
The 6'8" forward is most probably the Nuggets' primary defender on LeBron. So, that's obviously a huge assignment but if he can provide just enough on offense to complement the team's primary or even secondary threats, then his value to the team is tremendous.
Through the 14 games so far, the team wins (8) when they outscore their opponent with Grant on the floor and they drop the game when they get outscored with him on the floor. When he's on the court during the wins, the Nuggets outscore their opponents by an average of 7.0 points but in losses, the Nuggets get outscored by 13.7 points with him on the floor.
So, what's going on? There's no genuine trend to his +/- stat in terms of scoring, minutes or anything like that. Is it just the intangibles, then?
Gary Harris and Kyle Kuzma
The 6'4" guard has been an instant success for the Nuggets since his return. He returned in Game 6 vs. the Utah Jazz and in the nine games since, the team has a 106.3 defensive rating with him on the floor (best among the regular rotation players). With him off the floor, that rating goes up to 117.0 (worst).
And on the offensive end, unlike much of the 2019-20 regular season, he seems to be knocking down shots at an efficient clip. After getting the rust off in the first two games (Games 6 & 7 vs. Jazz), he shot 50.0% from the field and 41.9% from beyond the arc while averaging 10.7 points in 31.2 minutes in the seven-game series against the Clippers..
Denver will need him to consistently deliver on both ends to remain competitive against the might Lakers.
On the flip side, for the Lakers, it's Kyle Kuzma.
A player who's taken massive strides on the defensive end of the floor but is yet to consistently produce on the offensive end of the floor. When he gets going, he helps the Lakers space out their opponents, opening up the lanes for their superstars. With no Avery Bradley and Danny Green still finding his touch, his shooting touch and cuts to the rim would be instrumental in the Lakers creating efficient halfcourt offence.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.