Can anyone stop this Lakers juggernaut?

Also: Miami can't close; Warriors back on the (practice) court and it feels glorious

In discussing these NBA playoffs with various people, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the Lakers are the team to beat. LeBron James sits unchallenged atop his throne and it’s going to take a lot of luck - and just a bit of magic - to knock him off of it during a weird bubble playoff scene missing many of the league’s best players.

Tonight at 6pm on TNT Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and the Denver Nuggets will see if they can pull yet another trick out of their hat and come back from a 3-1 deficit. They’ve done it twice already this post season (the first team in NBA history to ever do so), but it remains to be seen if the third time’s a charm, or if the Nuggets are out of miracles.

The head of the Nuggets beast is a potent tandem that has proven up to the task of winning big games and carrying their team when it’s most needed. It was Jamal Murray that was at the epicenter of the Nuggets lone win in the series so far. Highlighted by a series of clutch three-point shots and acrobatic, gravity-defying layups, Murray hung 40 points on the heralded wing defense of the Los Angeles Clippers in the elimination game.

Jokic’s broad, squishy shoulders are just as capable. If it weren’t for a heroic game winning shot from Anthony Davis, the Nuggets would have two wins in this series after Jokic went on a one-man scoring run that was nearly too much for the Lakers.

But the Lakers have LeBron James, a walking, spin-moving legend. His defense on Murray to close the last game was stout, rife with questionable contact though it may have been. James was the final defender on Murray on 10 plays in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets went 2-for-8 in those possessions, and Murray was 0-3 with a turnover when he was the last Nugget with the ball, via The Athletic.

Anthony Davis has been phenomenal, but let’s talk about Dwight Howard. Playing for the Lakers on a NBA-minimum value contract, Howard’s legacy was locked away behind a door that continually loops that gif of Kobe Bryant calling him soft.

But it was Howard that turned the tide in this series, a needed push from an unexpected direction is exactly what pundits are talking about with all the “X-factor” talk.

It was Howard that showed up early as the force with enough physicality to ruffle the feathers of the very sanguine game of Jokic. After getting outrebounded to a disastrous degree in their sole defeat (when Davis pulled down a meager two rebounds, both late in the game) it was Howard that showed up. Coming out with intention, he scored on four putbacks in the first quarter and had a double-double before halftime in the last game.

It feels weird to see Howard thrust back into the spotlight. After being the best center in the NBA by a wide margin for much of his career, he’s been pushed to the brink of relevance through a combination of a changing league, and lingering back and shoulder injuries. But as they say, the rumors of Howard’s demise have been greatly exaggerated; and he’s proving it against Jokic, the man who has single-handedly reawakened the league to the power of a dominant post presence.

Celtics don’t go down easy, pull back to 3-2; how worried should Miami be about their shooting?

We’ve talked about the inherent risks and uncertainties of playing the “NBA Jam” style of analysis to these games by looking at each team’s top two players, but sometimes the game really is that simple.

Up 3-1, the Miami Heat were hopeful that they could knock the Boston Celitcs out, giving their team some well-earned rest ahead of the NBA Finals. Welp, the best laid plans of mice and men…

You can look at the 3rd quarter as the deciding stretch in this game. Somebody gave on heck of a halftime speech or something, because the Celtics used a 20-5 run early in the third to take the lead after trailing by as many as 12 in the first half - and went on to win the quarter 41-25.

Here’s my NBA Jam analysis - but for stats:

During that 20-5 run in the third, the Heat were shooting blanks. Miami went 1-for-9 from the field, during that span and it’s part of a growingly concerning pattern.

Miami shot 7 of 36 from 3-point range in Game 5, the third consecutive game in the series the team shot under 30 percent from 3, as per The Athletic:

The Celtics entered the series as the best 3-point shooting defense in the playoffs, but Miami was one of the best shooting teams in the league. After shooting 44 percent in its Game 1 win and then 33 percent in Game 2, it’s been all downhill for the Heat since.  In Game 3, Miami was 12 of 44 from 3 (27.3 percent), and in Game 4, the Heat shot 10 of 37 from 3 (27.0 percent).

All of the remaining playoff teams are going to be extremely tough to beat. If your shooting abandons you (or you can’t figure out the defense)… it’s not good.

Heat still hold the edge in the series, needing to beat the Celtics just once in three games, but last night was far from the knockout blow they were hoping to deliver.

Odds and ends

Did you see that Klay Thompson is back on the basketball court?

I’m honestly freaking out over here. It’s a very emotional time for me, watching my favorite Warrior take to the hardwood after leaving us after suffering a tragic knee injury - the same exact injury that ended my basketball playing career.

From our YouTube channel, check out this super cut of Klay’s practice footage, dubbed over with coach Steve Kerr’s discussion of his return:

Also, because we had such a busy day yesterday, the vidcast that Daniel Hardee and I did with NBC Sports’ Grant Liffman got quickly buried on the front page.

It’s a quick one, just 30 minutes, but one part that I thought was interesting was Liffman’s discussion of the Warriors’ draft strategy.

“I’m putting this in particular order,” he said, drawing a clear distinction that the number one preference for the upcoming draft would be to package that pick in some sort of deal that returns a superstar. Given the unlikelihood of such an event, we go on to discuss if the performance of Jokic and the big front line of the Lakers has at all changed the internal rubric of the Warriors decision-making process.