Over the next few days, Basket Bawful and Free Darko will be previewing each NBA Playoff series. Basket Bawful looks at the Erstern Conference today, starting with the series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets, which begins Sunday.
First off, let me congratulate the Denver Nuggets on making the Western Conference playoffs. Now, let me give them my condolences, because they're like the fat laboratory mouse that gets dropped into the mamba tank for lunch.
The season series: L.A. won it in a 3-0 sweep.
Bad news for the Nuggets: Denver lost the first game by 28 points, the second game by 4, and the third game by 17. In other words, they were competitive exactly once, and they still lost. Oh, and they gave up an average of 118 PPG.
Good news for the Nuggets: I hear that the spring and summer are lovely in Colorado. So there's that. Otherwise? I don't know. (I guess that fact that Carmelo Anthony is available for the playoffs and not living behind bars and contemplating a jailhouse marriage to somebody named "Rock" is a good thing. By the way, 'Melo: Stay off the sauce until after you get eliminated, okay?)
Reality check: The Lakers are one of the best offensive teams in the league. They rank fourth in points per game (108.6), third in field goal percentage (47.6), and third in offensive efficiency (102.8 points per 100 possessions). Now, the Nuggets might be the second-worst team in the league in points allowed (107.0), but they rank 10th in defensive efficiency (103.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). However, their defense is predicated on forcing turnovers, which doesn't work very well against efficient, disciplined teams like the Lakers ... who are tenth in turnover ratio (only 12.9 percent of their possessions end in turnovers). Have I John Hollingered you to death yet?
The point of all that statistical mumbo jumbo is this: Denver's defense doesn't have a doughnut's chance in Rosie O'Donnell's mouth of stopping L.A.'s offense, which means the Nuggets have to outscore the Lakers to win. And I just don't see that happening more than (maybe) once.
Lakers player(s) to watch: Uh, does the name Kobe Bryant ring a bell? Remember, this is the first time that Kobe's gotten to be The Man for a championship contender. Also keep in mind that he's worked his black buns off to emulate everything Michael Jordan, right down to the determined grimace/fist pump combination. And one of the defining characteristics of Jordan's career was the way he would eviscerate first round opponents. See, Mike knew he could go wild against the lower seeds without really risking a loss. It was the best possible time to show off. You know, average 40 PPG or a triple-double or something. And there's no better defense for Kobe to do that against than Denver's. In fact, there's probably a constant "CHA-CHING!" sound going off in his head right now.
Nuggets player(s) to keep an eye on: First off, A.I and 'Melo will need to score a lot of points. Second, Marcus Camby must put the clamps on Pau Gasol. As a team, Denver has to close out on the Lakers' perimeter shooters. And who the hell is going to guard Kobe?
Key(s) to the series: Denver's D ... or lack thereof. We know they can score — they have Iverson and Anthony gunning for them, after all — but can they stop L.A.? They'll have to. But Phil Jackson isn't going to let his team get careless with the ball, so the Nuggets are going to have to dig in on defense. That means being physical, staying in front of their men, moving their feet, putting hands in faces, cutting off the paint, clogging the passing lanes (without overcommitting for steals), and stopping the longball. You know, basically everything they didn't do during the regular season.
Prediction: Lakers in five. And frankly, that's being pretty generous to the Nuggets.