will Jokić halt LeBron’s title ambitions?

What the Lakers need to do: Defend. When these teams met in the conference finals in the bubble in 2020, the Lakers won the series in just five games, holding Denver to 109.2 points per contest. They may have to do even better this time as the Nuggets boast perhaps the best player on Earth, Nikola Jokić, winner of two of the past three NBA MVP awards. Thankfully for LA, they have maybe the greatest defender on Earth in Anthony Davis. In the 2020 championship run, Davis’ long arms altered countless shots and he’ll have to do the same here.

The problem for the Lakers is that Jokić is even better than he was three years ago, capable of scoring from anywhere and dishing dazzling assists. Against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semi-finals, the Lakers held the Warriors and Stephen Curry to under 100 points in Game 3, and an average of 109.8 points per game in the six total contests. They’ll have to keep that pressure up against Denver.

When the Lakers emerged victorious against Golden State, a relieved James said he and his team have a “lot of respect” for the Nuggets. And both teams will have a handful of days off between winning their semi-finals series and Game 1 in Denver on Tuesday. Rest will be important for the Lakers, especially if they want to keep their streak alive of winning Game 1 on the road and snatching home-court advantage from their higher-seeded foes, just as they did in the opening round against Memphis and later against the Warriors.

Key player for the Lakers: LeBron is still the King, but the Lakers’ best player is clearly now Davis, with his condor-like wingspan and ability to affect the game at both ends of the court. He can check guards and block shots at the rim on defense and attack the paint with the ball. But the series will probably come down to “the others,” as Shaquille O’Neal often calls a squad’s role players. Undrafted wing Austin Reaves has been the team’s third-best player over the past several months and guards Dennis Schröder and D’Angelo Russell have provided important scoring pop. Everyone will need to be on their A-game if they’re to survive Jokić.

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What the Nuggets need to do: Stay calm. Sure, they’re a (relatively) small-town team. And sure LA is glitzy, with stars like Jack Nicholson and Michael B Jordan in the crowd. But the rims are still 10ft tall, and the court is still 94ft by 50ft. While Denver are a so-so defensive team, their star player can do it all on offense – and he’ll have to. When the Warriors had success against the Lakers, it came from drawing Davis away from the basket. Jokić can do so in spades, orchestrating from the top of the three-point arc. Combine his talents with the skilled supporting cast of point guard Jamal Murray, forward Aaron Gordon, shooter Michael Porter Jr and Swiss army knife Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the Nuggets have more than enough to make it to the NBA finals for the first time in franchise history.

Key player for the Nuggets: The Nuggets’ starting five are excellent. They have size, scoring, experience, continuity and talent to boot. So, let’s look at the team’s reserves – specifically, the three players likely to come off the bench in any close game: versatile forward Jeff Green, slashing guard Bruce Brown Jr and promising rookie Christian Braun. Yes, Jokić is always No 1 when it comes to Denver. But without great bench play while the starters rest, Denver will be heading home sooner than they hoped.

Prediction: Given that the Lakers revamped their franchise to such a massive degree this year, it’s hard to glean any insight from the teams’ head-to-head battles during the regular season. But with two hungry rosters and two former MVPs, this should be a close one. The edge, however, has to go to James, who’s just been here too many times before. Lakers in 6.

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What the Heat need to do: Everything starts with Jimmy Butler. He is the straw that stirs the drink with his drives to the basket, dogged defense and ability to draw fouls. Aside from Butler, the Heat’s other ace in the hole is their coach, Erik Spoelstra. He may be the best tactician in the game, capable of turning a slight advantage into one that could decide a series. The Heat grind out games, and the Celtics are well aware of that, having faced Miami last year in the conference finals, going to seven games and barely winning after a missed Butler buzzer-beater that still lives in the minds of their fans. While the Heat are the No 8 seed, they believe they are on Boston’s level. With the unflappable Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry, along with shooters Max Strus and Duncan Robinson, Miami have a great chance to advance if they stay disciplined.

Key player for the Heat: While Butler remains the biggest name for Miami, it will be hard for the Heat to win through without strong shooting from distance. Miami will surely look to muck the game up with fouls, rugged play and every other trick Spoelstra can muster. But they will need to hang with Boston’s big-time scorers in order to advance. As such, Robinson and Strus must hit shots often, both to put up points and to create the court space for Butler to operate.

What the Celtics need to do: Remember who they are. It’s strange, Boston somehow tend to forget that they may be the best team in the NBA and certainly the best remaining squad in these playoffs. Do they get bored? The team’s two stars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are complemented by the excellent Al Horford, Robert Williams and Marcus Smart: many would argue the only NBA team that can beat the Celtics are the Celtics. If the team get lackadaisical or lose confidence, Miami will attack like a piranha crossed with a pitbull and there will be no tomorrow. Indeed, the series will be won and lost between the ears for Boston and their playoff tested roster.

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Key player for Boston: The key figure for Boston won’t be on the court. Instead, it’s the rookie 34-year-old head coach, Joe Mazzulla, who replaced Ime Udoka amid a storm of controversy. The youthful play-caller is somehow two years younger than the team’s starting center, Horford. Will Coach Mazz be outwitted by Coach Spo, who already boasts two championship rings from the LeBron-Wade era? Or will he rise to the challenge? Mazzulla has already recently been called out by Smart. But Mazz and his team responded in Sunday’s Game 7 against Philly, outscoring the 76ers 33-10 in the third quarter. It will be up to Boston’s coach to make sure the team stay rooted in their identity: a killer one-two punch with a talented supporting cast.

Prediction: While the “Zombie Heat,” as Bill Simmons calls them, just won’t go away, Boston are far more talented top-to-bottom than the squad from South Beach. They should take care of business in the series and meet the Lakers in the finals for the 13th time in history, each team hoping to earn their 18th title banner. Boston in 6.

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