It’s that time of year folks.
It’s the time when that strenuous, compacted, 66-game schedule culminates into a few weeks of do-or-die basketball. It’s the time when the Los Angeles Lakers get their chance to show the rest of the NBA why they’re annually considered one of the league’s top contenders. Put bluntly, it’s time to put up or shut up.
So when the Lakers tip off their first-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, it’ll be the start of a tough test for a team that has been hampered by inconsistency and untimely injuries this season.
Although the Lakers won the season series 3-1, there will be a number of hurdles that they must overcome to move on to the next round. The most daunting task, though, will be slowing down the Nuggets’ high-scoring offense.
Boasting the talents of point guard Ty Lawson and shooting guard Arron Afflalo, the Nuggets’ offense has averaged 104.1 points per game (first in the NBA) this season. They’re shooting 47.6 percent from the field (second in the NBA) and have 23.9 assists per game (also first in the NBA). In essence, this series is going to come down to how well the Lakers can keep the Nuggets’ offense in check.
With a healthy Kobe Bryant back in the lineup and Andrew Bynum playing his best basketball, the Lakers will have plenty of opportunities to take control of this series. Even with Lawson and Afflalo currently playing elite-level basketball, the Lakers have shown that they can contain powerful offenses by playing with passion and working as a unit. Reference the Lakers’ latest win against the San Antonio Spurs, which they pulled off without the help of Bryant.
Bryant will have his hands full guarding Afflalo, who has been on fire the past few weeks. Possessing a tremendous ability to create shots in a variety of ways, Afflalo has proven himself to be one of the most efficient scorers for the Nuggets this season. But as long as Bryant can stick to him like white on rice and force him into low-percentage shots, Afflalo’s numbers shouldn’t be too outrageous.
Especially with Metta World Peace out for the first six games of the series (if necessary) while serving a suspension, Nuggets’ small forward Danilo Gallinari could prove to be a pest. Even though he struggled mightily against Kobe and Co. this season, Gallinari has been playing well down the stretch and has the ability to pick up the slack if the Lakers put the clamps on Lawson and Afflalo.
The most important matchup to keep an eye on, however, is at point guard. Although the Lakers have seen considerable improvement at the spot since the acquisition of Ramon Sessions, he’s going to face a big challenge in keeping Lawson at bay. Combining blazing speed with an impressive ability to create shots, Lawson is going to be a handful for Sessions, who will be getting his first taste of playoff action. If he hopes to slow down Lawson (19 points per game in the month of April), he’s going to have to play the best defense he has all season. Lawson is the gas that makes the Nuggets’ offense go; it’ll be Sessions’ job to keep him from running amok.
To make matter worse for the Lakers, the Nuggets are riding a huge wave of momentum heading into the post-season. After nearly letting the eighth seed slip through their grasp, they managed a win in six of their final seven games, including two blowouts and a hard-fought victory over the Thunder. It’s apparent that they’re not ready for their season to end, and it’s going to be the Lakers’ task to send them on an early vacation.
Luckily for the Lakers, the Nuggets aren’t as great on the other side of the court as they are on offense. Giving up an ugly 101.2 points per game (29th in the NBA), the Nuggets continuously struggle on the defensive side of the ball and haven’t fared well against point-plentiful offenses. The best way for the Lakers to take advantage of that: play fundamentally-sound basketball and give the playmakers plenty of touches.
It’s obvious that the Lakers are going to need Bryant’s normal production to exit the first round victorious, but the bigger focus should be on getting the ball into Bynum and Pau Gasol early and often. The Nuggets don’t have the talent in the paint to match up with either big man, meaning that the Lakers will have a mismatch to exploit almost every time down the floor. Considering that Bynum averaged 25.7 points in his three games against the Nuggets this season, feeding him needs to be an avenue that the Lakers routinely follow.
Despite all of their weapons, the one that could prove to be the biggest thorn in the Lakers’ side is Nuggets’ Rookie of the Year candidate, power forward Kenneth Faried. Sure; the Lakers have the best big man duo in the league. That, however, doesn’t mean that an energetic, electrifying youngster can’t put them to the test. Faried, fittingly nicknamed “Manimal,” has been an unstoppable force for the Nuggets. After a slow start to his debut season, he has averaged 11.6 points, nine rebounds (3.7 offensive) and 1.1 blocks per game in the last month. Whether it’s on offense or defense, Faried’s tenacity and relentless style of play has turned him into one of Denver’s most reliable difference-makers. He may not be their go-to guy, but Faried is the type of player who can flip the switch and wreak havoc in the postseason.
Regardless of the challenges that lie ahead for the Lakers, having the best front court in the NBA and a healthy Bryant at the helm will give the purple and gold the edge in this series. No World Peace will definitely be a setback, but the Lakers’ starting lineup is strong enough to shoulder the extra weight.
Final prediction: Lakers take the series 4-2