NBA 1st Round Preview: LA Lakers-Denver

The Los Angeles Lakers come into the postseason riding a wave of controversy, after the suspension of Ron Artest, Man Of World Peace, has put their small forward on the bench for six games. But Los Angeles has ridden the trio of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum to a 41-25 record, the Pacific Division title and a #3 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference. Can they hold off 6th-seeded Denver when their first-round series begins on Sunday? TheSportsNotebook previews the Lakers-Nuggets…

Let’s begin with Los Angeles’ obvious strength and it’s the sheer star power they bring to the table with Kobe Bryant. Delivering a season that deserves some MVP consideration, Kobe took a heavy load in minutes, in a compressed year where a lot of top players—particularly those on the high side of 30—paced themselves, and was the league’s second-leading scorer. No one will ever accuse him of excessive interest in getting his teammates involved and his 43% shooting percentage was well behind scoring rival Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City who shot 50 percent. But while I don’t like Kobe any more than any Celtics fan, give the man his due—he carried Los Angeles to a regular season level they really had no business achieving.

The presence of Bynum and Gasol gives the Lakers a post presence almost impossible to match up with. Both go seven feet tall, and they combine for 36 points/22 rebounds per night and mix in a few blocked shots for good measure. This interior presence, along with Bryant is the engine that drives the Lakers.

If you believe that to pull an upset, the underdog must go opposite the favorite in terms of strength, then Denver has to be given a fair chance to win this series. The Nuggets look to push tempo, while the Lakers run the halfcourt offense. Denver has a reasonable amount of depth, while LA is dependent on its Big Three. The Nuggets are an excellent rebounding team in their own right—4th in the league, compared to the Lakers’ 2nd, so they can at least not get buried in the post. Add these natural matchup advantages to the fact LA is down a body without Artest and you have the makings of an upset.

Denver will have to win the battle of the backcourts decisively, and if we incorporate the small forward role into the equation there’s every reason to think they can do that. Ty Lawson, Aron Afflalo and Danilio Galini all average 15-plus points per game. All three score with efficiency, hitting better than 40 percent of their shots from the floor, with Lawson and Afflalo inching toward the 50 percent threshold. These three are enough to compensate for Bryant. If the Lakers are going to counter, point guard Ramon Sessions will have to run the offense effectively under pressure and hit a few shots himself and Steve Blake will have to be a contributing factor. I like Sessions’ chance to contribute, while being less positive about Blake.  The Nuggets also have two guards off the bench who get regular playing time, in Andre Miller and Corey Brewer. Neither will dazzle you, but both can hit a jumper if the Laker defense doesn’t keep up.

This article is written with a lot of positives for Denver when we evaluate personnel, but there’s one thing not to like about this Nuggets team and it’s that 19th ranking in defensive efficiency, which adjusts points allowed for tempo, so the fast pace they play at is not an excuse. You do not beat a championship-caliber team playing that kind of defense.

But that brings us back to the question of whether Los Angeles is championship-caliber (I feel like a laywer, I’m going back and forth on this so much). I can see a good argument for the idea that they are, and I don’t want to overstate the six-game loss of The Man of World Peace, but he does play some defense and he’s an extra body in a series where the Lakers will need depth. He would be back for a Game 7 if it comes to that at the Staples Center. I believe Denver is going to take a 3 games to 2 lead in this series, but they won’t win a decisive game on the road. My bet is that they do find a way to close it out in the Rockies in Game 6 and deliver the one big upset in a league known for its chalkiness.