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Why the Denver Nuggets are a better team than what the Lakers faced in the NBA bubble

It seemed as if any milestone elicited an eyeroll or an asterisk.

First, they dismissed the Denver Nuggets’ appearance in the Western Conference Finals because it took place in the NBA bubble. Then, they downplayed Nikola Jokic’s two regular-season MVP awards because he didn’t add any championship rings to his trophy case. Then, they argued that the Nuggets will never have any postseason success.

What are they going to say now? That the Nuggets only finished with the Western Conference’s best record because the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, LA Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers had key injuries? That the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the second time in four years only because the Suns nursed an injury to point guard Chris Paul? That the Nuggets’ season is a failure if they lose to a Lakers team that features a dominant LeBron James and Anthony Davis?

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Lost among all the caveats: Top-seeded Denver meets the No. 7 Lakers in the Western Conference Finals beginning on Tuesday as a much better team than the version the Lakers competed against in the NBA bubble three years ago.

Jokic has stayed consistent with his MVP-level performances, while increasing his vocal leadership, becoming even more efficient with his scoring and playmaking and mitigating his defensive weaknesses. Point guard Jamal Murray has recaptured his bubble magic, while showing more aggressiveness as a scorer and passer. Small forward Michael Porter Jr. has appeared more comfortable as a third option than when he struggled with finding his way as a young player. Denver coach Michael Malone has continued to receive the best out of his players without losing his command in the locker room.

Denver’s ongoing success will mostly hinge on those familiar characters. Don’t discount the Nuggets, though, for having their deepest team since their bubble season. Before the 2021 trade deadline, Denver acquired an effective forward from Orlando (Aaron Gordon) that has relieved pressure on Jokic inside with consistent rebounding, putbacks and defense. Last offseason, the Nuggets bolstered their defense through trades (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and free-agent signings (Bruce Brown, DeAndre Jordan).

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Because of that additional depth, perhaps the Nuggets can challenge the Lakers much greater than when they played only five games against them in the 2020 Western Conference Finals. At least they have additional wing defenders to throw at James. At least they have more interior players to wear Davis out. At least they have more continuity than the Lakers’ revamped supporting cast has experienced since the trade deadline.

No doubt, the Lakers have improved significantly with those deadline moves. Without Russell Westbrook, James and Davis have additional space to operate. The Lakers upgraded positional needs with a better playmaker (D’Angelo Russell), more shooters (Malik Beasley) and more interior defenders (Mo Bamba, Jarred Vanderbilt). Yet, the Lakers don’t have the same supporting cast that helped dispose of the Nuggets in the campus bubble. Then, the Lakers had two traditional backup centers (Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee) to help Davis with challenging Jokic inside. Los Angeles also had a mostly dependable shooter (Danny Green), a scrappy role player (Alex Caruso), a young third option (Kyle Kuzma) and a strong wing defender (Caldwell-Pope). They had all season to iron out their chemistry, while the current Lakers have had just over three months to form their identity.

They’ve been the No. 1 team in the West for a reason,” James said of the Nuggets. “They’ve played exceptional basketball all year. And we’re going in with the utmost respect for their ballclub.”

At least the Lakers have given the Nuggets their proper respect, a courtesy never given by the general public. They focused more on their opponents’ shortcomings than crediting Denver for overcoming 3-1 series deficits against the Utah Jazz and the Clippers in the campus bubble. They point out the Nuggets’ second-round loss to Phoenix in a sweep in 2021 without considering that Murray missed the final month of the season after tearing his ACL in his left knee. They sneer at Denver’s first-round exit to Golden State in 2022 without recognizing the Nuggets lost to the future NBA champions with Murray and Porter still nursing injuries.

This season, Denver has reached their full potential while mostly staying healthy.   

Jokic set a franchise record for most triple-doubles in a season (a league-leading 29) and in the playoffs (NBA-best five). Murray has nearly mirrored his production this postseason (25.9 points, career-high 5.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists) as his breakout season in the bubble (26.5 points, 6.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds). Porter shook off his early career hiccups with his health, maturity and consistency to become the Nuggets’ third-leading scorer (14.5 points per game in the playoffs). Though Denver has faced questions about its team defense during the regular season, the Nuggets have ranked first out of 16 playoff teams in points off turnovers allowed (12.9), fourth in steals per game (7.7) as well as fifth in defensive rating (110.1) and defensive rebounds per game (33.9).

Will that become enough to beat the Lakers? Strap yourself up for a six or seven-game series that could go either way. Regardless of the outcome, however, the Nuggets arrived at this stage on their own merits. For once, NBA fans should not react to Denver’s success with crossed arms and shrugged shoulders.

Follow NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter and on Instagram.

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