Los Angeles Versus Denver PreviewWestern Conference Finals
#1 L.A. Lakers (65-17) vs. #2 Denver (54-28)
Season series: L.A. Lakers, 3-1
Denver can win if…their frontcourt players dominate the Lakers' frontcourt players, Chauncey Billups continues to play at a very high level, Carmelo Anthony is productive and efficient at both ends of the court and none of the Nuggets' "knuckleheads" revert back to their previous ways.
L.A. will win because…the Nuggets have no answer for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have homecourt advantage. Bryant averaged 33.5 ppg, 6.3 apg and 5.3 rpg versus Denver in last year's playoffs, shooting .500 from the field; in four regular season games versus Denver this season, Bryant averaged 31.0 ppg, 2.3 apg and 4.8 rpg while shooting .478 from the field.
Based on what we have seen in the playoffs so far, the Nuggets' bigs may very well get the better of the Lakers' bigs in one or two games, particularly in Denver, but overall the Lakers match up pretty well with the Nuggets; the Lakers swept the Nuggets in the first round last year and while the Nuggets are unquestionably better now than they were a year ago they are not so much better that they will go from being swept to beating the Lakers without the benefit of homecourt advantage.
The Lakers' shaky play at times versus Houston has infuriated Lakers' fans and frustrated many basketball observers but it is important to understand that each playoff series is a separate entity with different matchups and a different dynamic. Even though Denver is theoretically a better team than Houston at the moment, the Lakers probably match up better with the Nuggets than they do with the Rockets. Also, keep in mind that the Lakers prepared for a playoff series in which Yao Ming would be a central factor only to have to throw that game plan out the window when he got hurt--yes, the Rockets lost talent and depth when he went down but his absence also added an element of randomness to the series and that tends to favor the underdog, at least in the short term. This series will be a lot less random and I don't think that it will be nearly as competitive as some people seem to expect--I would be surprised if the Nuggets force a seventh game but I would not be shocked if the Lakers win in five games. The most important thing for the Lakers is to jump on the Nuggets in the first five minutes of game one, win that game convincingly and find out how much the Nuggets have really changed since last season. The Nuggets have just breezed through this postseason without facing any adversity and they have been a good frontrunning team for years but it will be interesting to see how they react to trailing in a series for the first time this year.
Other things to consider: Much like NFL quarterbacks sometimes receive too much credit when their teams win and too much blame when their teams lose, it has become popular to try to explain away all of Denver's newfound success as being a direct result of the trade that shipped Allen Iverson to Detroit in exchange for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (who the Pistons re-signed after the Nuggets released him). Billups undoubtedly played well during the regular season and he has performed at an even higher level during the playoffs; Billups probably deserves some of the credit for squashing some of the "knucklehead" tendencies on this team--Carmelo Anthony has actually been observed playing defense this season and J.R. Smith has taken some tentative steps toward becoming more mature on and off the court. Still, the Nuggets have greatly benefited from the acquisition of Chris Andersen and the improved health of Nene and Kenyon Martin; without those frontcourt upgrades the Nuggets would not have finished second in the West in the regular season or made it to the Western Conference Finals.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:45 AM