Things to watch when the Lakers host the Denver Nuggets Saturday night at Staples Center. The Lakers and Nuggets are tied, 3-3. The winner faces Oklahoma City on Monday in the Western Conference semifinals.
1. The outcome will have a significant affect on the Lakers' off-season plans. Magic Johnson raised the ante just a little by saying a Game 7 loss would spur the Lakers to fire Coach Mike Brown after just his first season. Whether that actually happens? Who knows. But consider that Brown, who is making $4.5 million a season, has two more guaranteed years left on his contract followed by a team option. That wouldn't exactly ease the desire of the Lakers' front office to trim their player payroll to avoid the harsher luxury tax penalties stemming from the new collective bargaining agreement.
There are other off-season plans to consider. The most immediate point to free agency, including Ramon Sessions (unrestricted), Matt Barnes (unrestricted), Jordan Hill (unrestricted), Troy Murphy (unrestricted) and Devin Ebanks (restricted). The Lakers also will have to address how to handle rookies Darius Morris, who signed a one-year deal after being drafted, and Andrew Goudelock, who has a $789,000 team option next season. Although the Lakers publicly shared their intention to exercise Andrew Bynum's $16.1-million team option next season, who knows if his immaturity and inconsistent performances would sway that plan. Pau Gasol, the subject of plenty of trade rumors after the unsuccessful Chris Paul trade, could face a summer filled with more.
It's far too speculative to presume how the Lakers will address their personnel. Still, it's safe to say that a loss would precipitate the Lakers into making at least some changes. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak recently told The Times' Mike Bresnahan that how the Lakers perform in the postseason will factor into how they handle their off-season plans.
2. Will Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol provide enough effort? At first, it appeared the Lakers' size would prove too overwhelming for the Nuggets to handle. But in the past two games, the poor effort from both Bynum and Gasol has been a liability. Bynum has posted 27 points in the past two games, matching the same amount that he scored in Game 2. He's also rarely gotten back on transition defense. And in the Lakers' 113-96 Game 6 loss Thursday to Denver, Bynum often sat out of the huddles during timeouts. Meanwhile, Gasol posted fewer points (three) and rebounds (three) in Game 6 than Kobe Bryant received bags of intravaneous fluids (four). The Lakers' forward hasn't matched the physical presence of rookie Kenneth Feried. And Gasol's trusty mid-range jumper has suddenly gone flat in the past two games; he's made only five of 21 shots.
It's imperative that both Bynum and Gasol play aggressively regardless of the double teams they face or the lack of touches they receive. Their effort level has a trickle-down effect in several areas. It influences how well they move the ball. It determines how much the Lakers can contain the energy provided by Faried and JaVale McGee. It affects to what degree the Lakers get back in transition and temper the Nuggets' speed. And as we've seen in the past two games, their effort (or lack thereof) largely influences the outcome.
3. How will Metta World Peace look in his return? World Peace's seven-game suspension is over. The Lakers don't exactly like the circumstances under which World Peace returns for Game 7, even if it means he wouldn't miss time in a possible semifinals matchup with Oklahoma City. But for a team that's missed his presence, perhaps that's the adjustment the Lakers will need to secure the first-round series.
Coach and player accounts say that World Peace kept himself in good shape during his time off. So it's fair to expect that World Peace will immediately bolster the Lakers' defense -- in guarding Danilo Gallinari, cross-matching and providing a physical presence. It remains to be seen, though, whether World Peace can replicate the 14 points per game he averaged in April. That would be a necessity, considering the Lakers have lacked consistent outside shooters. Should his shot fall, his presence alone could ease up the double-team pressure inside.
Still, there's a danger in the Lakers thinking that World Peace is their savior. They hardly said much about his absence when they led the series, 3-1. So the responsibility also lies on World Peace's teammates to carry their weight as well.