The Los Angeles Lakers, two years removed from an NBA title, are looking to reach the pinnacle once again sans Phil Jackson as they head into the first round of the NBA playoffs as the third seed for the Western Conference to take on the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets.
Perhaps an upset is brewing?
The Lakers are older, Kobe Bryant is experiencing wear and tear, and the team has shied away a little from the defensive focus it has had in recent years. Consider last season when Los Angeles ranked sixth in the league in defensive efficiency. This year, it hasn't dropped off much, but it ranks 11th, in large part because of the decline in perimeter defense.
The Nuggets are seeking to beat the Lakers and get past the first round for the first time since the 2009 postseason. (Reuters/Evan Semon)
Come Game 1 Sunday at the Staples Center, the loss of forward Metta World Peace to a justified suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City Thunder forward James Harden in his head will most likely exacerbate that problem. The Nuggets have a young and deep team, which ranked second in the league in scoring (105.9), shooting (49.7%) and assists (25.5). And, six players average double figures.
One of those players, Danilo Gallinari, who can get hot shooting, particularly at the three, would be the one to feel World Peace's defensive pressure. But, now that he isn't available, and also because of forward Matt Barnes's ankle injury, that probably means the inexperienced Devin Ebanks will be called on to be the starting small forward and fill World Peace's role.
The Lakers also have to take into account a dangerous and speedy Nuggets frontcourt. Guards Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, who play the pick-and-roll extremely well, are one-two in the frontcourt in field goal percentage with the ability to both pull up for a shot or penetrate to the bucket off of a screen. It will be up to Ramon Sessions, who hasn't been stellar defensively, and Bryant, whose legs aren't what they once were, to guard the former and the latter respectively.
The key for the Lakers then will perhaps be their post play on both ends of the floor. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are matchup nightmares for virtually every team in the league because of the former's underestimated jump shooting game and the latter's sheer power.
Bynum was the bigger force against the Nuggets this season, whether he was dominating Nene or JaVale McGee. He played with hustle, posted up on the blocks and owned the paint, averaging 24.8 points on 66.1% shooting and 11.8 rebounds in each of the four games in the series, which the Lakers won 3-1. Gasol complemented Bynum with 16 points on 54.2% shooting and 10.8 rebounds, maximizing his mid-range shots.
Gasol, in the upcoming series, might not have to take too many jump shots with the matchup advantages the Lakers present. However, that doesn't mean overly deferring the ball to Bryant either. Afflalo has guarded Bryant heavily throughout the season and held him to 17.7 points on 27.5% shooting, which makes it seem almost impossible that Bryant will shoot the lights out.
Nevertheless, Bryant was still the third-best scorer in the league at 27.1 points per game. That number would suggest a lot of shots, but it masks the balance that he found in keeping and distributing the ball. A Lakers team that finished the year seventh in assists speaks to that and the unselfish nature of the entire team in general.
NBA analyst Charles Barkley predicted an upset on Thursday during the NBA on TNT. The Lakers' recent regression and the Nuggets' youth, depth and energy warrant that. However, the game starts from the inside and works its way out. With two experienced big men for Los Angeles who can accomplish that alongside the polished Bryant, the Lakers will march on past the first round and win the series 4-2.