Denver's Andre Miller tries to drive against the Lakers' Kobe… (Jack Dempsey / Associated…)
It's official. The Lakers will play the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA playoffs, beginning with Game 1 on Sunday at Staples Center. Here are five things to note regarding the match-up:
1. Can the Lakers shape up on defense? The effort from Andrew Bynum isn't always there. Metta World Peace won't be available to defend Danilo Gallinari, who was held from World Peace to a combined three-of-18 clip. For all the upgrade Ramon Sessions brings offensively, his defensive rating (340 via Synergy) isn't much better than Derek Fisher's (380). And in the past 10 games, the Lakers are actually the fourth worst defensive team in the league, allowing 104 points per game.
Blame all you want on the Lakers believing they can outscore teams now that they have a quick point guard. But that's a serious indictment on the Lakers' willingness to buy into Brown's main calling card. The Lakers can't afford to have that lax attitude against the Nuggets, who are second in the league in both scoring (105.9), shooting (49.7%) and assists (25.5). More importantly, the Lakers are primed to get burned on transition defense should they throw up ill-advised shots or commit too many turnovers. The Nuggets score almost 20 points a game just on fast breaks.
2. Denver can't stop Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Lakers' inside game represents their biggest strength against the Nuggets, as against every opponent. But their effectiveness sometimes hinges on how aggressive the post plays or how much the Lakers can counter the opposing team's frontline.
That's not the case against Denver. The Nuggets couldn't stop Bynum this season, whether it was Nene or JaVale McGee. Bynum simply went to work by averaging 24.8 points on 66.1% shooting and 11.8 rebounds. In each of those games, Bynum ran the court relentlessly, posted up and owned the paint, while Gasol complemented Bynum with 16 points on 54.2% shooting and 10.8 rebounds by mostly playing a mid-range game. The Lakers have tried to implement that formula all season, but it's always been effective against Denver.
To counteract that, the Nuggets may actually feature a small lineup in hopes of exposing L.A.'s perimeter defense. But as long as the Lakers stick to playing inside-out, they shouldn't have a problem against such a strategy.
3. The Nuggets have made Kobe Bryant work hard for his points, but he's healthier now. The only time the Lakers didn't fully take advantage of Denver's frontline happened in a New Year's Day loss when he went six-of-28 from the field. Denver will continue to try to force Bryant to work for his points. UCLA product Arron Afflalo, who's averaged 19.1 points per game this past month, has mostly guarded Bryant and held him to 17.7 points on 27.5% shooting.
Just because Bryant may be challenged, it doesn't mean he can't overcome it. He's fully healthy and well rested. Before and after his shin injury this past month,Bryant has also played pretty balanced in playing both aggressively and getting others involved. Because of that, Bryant will either shoot at a more prolific rate, simply rely on his bigs or both.
4. How will Ramon Sessions fare in the his first postseason gig? The Lakers acquired Sessions to boost their chances against younger and faster teams, but his play has left room for uncertainty. Ever since he was instructed to slow down so the rest of the teem could keep up, Sessions has tempered his aggressiveness. Even though he's scrapped the padding on his sprained left shoulder, that injury might still ail him. And as mentioned before, Sessions has struggled in defending some of the speedy guards, including Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook.
Stopping Ty Lawson's 16.7 points, 6.7 assists and pick-and-roll coverage involves a team-wide effort. But the onus also falls on Sessions to properly guard him. For far too long, the Lakers have taken a passive approach in playing underneath screens and hoping that forcing guards into jump shots would keep them out of the lane. But the strategy has often backfired.
Combine all these uncertainties with Sessions' lack of playoff experience, and it's possible he might not offer what the Lakers need.
5. The Nuggets' depth could give the Lakers some trouble, but they have star power. The Lakers will miss not only World Peace's 14.1 points, 47.3% shooting, dependable defense and hustle within the past month. They'll also lack a healthy body in the lineup when they already face a glaring disadvantage, depthwise, against Denver.