NBA Playoff Preview: L.A. Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets

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SEASON RECORDS


Lakers: 41-25 (3 seed)
Nuggets: 38-28 (6 seed)

SEASON SERIES


The Lakers took three of the four regular season meetings from the Nuggets, with the only loss coming on New Year’s Day in Denver. All the games were close, however, with L.A.’s margin of victory never being greater than six points.

KEY INJURIES

Lakers: There are no players who will be unavailable due to injury to start this series for the Lakers. The Artest now known as Metta World Peace is serving a seven-game suspension for the elbow he landed on the head of James Harden, so we won’t be seeing him face the Nuggets unless there is a Game 7.

Nuggets: None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Lakers: offense 103.3 (10th); defense 101.7 (13th)
Nuggets: offense 106.6 (3rd); defense 103.4 (19th)

THREE KEY LAKERS:

Kobe Bryant: Bryant has played this season, for the most part, at an extremely high level. The shin injury he suffered at the beginning of April that forced him to miss seven games may have been a blessing in disguise, as the famously competitive Bryant wouldn’t likely have chosen to get any rest before the playoffs otherwise. As anyone who has watched this Lakers team closely can attest, the preferred and more successful strategy is for Bryant to pace himself offensively, while making sure his teammates get plenty of touches in the game’s early going — instead of making sure to take as many shots as humanly possible, no matter the defense.

Andrew Bynum: It’s been an interesting season for Anrew Bynum, to say the very least. What the Lakers hope to see in the postseason is the dominant, big man that Bynum showed he can be at multiple times this year, instead of the petulant man-child who engages in nonsense on the court that’s detrimental to the team’s efforts. The pressure of the postseason and the veterans on this team should be enough to keep him in check, but should he become disinterested or show a lack of maturity by needlessly picking up technical or flagrant fouls, it could severely impact his team’s chances.

Ramon Sessions: This will be Sessions’ first trip to the postseason in his career, and his performance, especially against this Denver team, will be critical to the Lakers’ success. Sessions will need to stay in front of Ty Lawson defensively, and will need to control the tempo on the offensive end, while resisting the urge to match the speed of Denver’s game.

THREE KEY NUGGETS

Aaron Afflalo: The Nuggets’ two-guard has really stepped his game up late in the season, and he’s going to be trouble for the Lakers. He regularly plays 40 minutes per game, and his scoring average and field goal percentage numbers were way up over his yearly averages in the last month of the season. He’s efficient and able to score in a variety of ways, so the Lakers will try to force him into taking low-percentage, highly-contested shots. Good luck with that.

Ty Lawson: Tempo is going to be the key to this series, and Lawson’s speed will be extremely tough to contain. He makes everything possible offensively for Denver, and offense is where games in this series will be won for the Nuggets.

Kenneth Faried: The rookie nicknamed “Manimal” is as athletic and energetic as they come, but he manages to play under control at the same time. The Lakers will need to be aware of him on both ends of the floor, and make a conscious effort to put a body on him to prevent those hustle plays that give his team extra possessions.

OUTLOOK

The Lakers have the best frontcourt in the game with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and one of its best players in Kobe Bryant. From a talent standpoint, Denver is overmatched. But the Nuggets have been playing excellent team basketball to end the season, finishing the season winning six of seven, and eight of their last 10 games.

Tempo will be the key to this series. If Denver is able to get out in transition and make these high-possession games, the team will have a chance to get some wins in this series. Overall, though, expect the Lakers to play a smart, focused brand of basketball that utilizes their strengths in the first round of these playoffs.

Denver should mostly keep things close, and may get a couple of wins as the Lakers try to find their postseason selves. L.A.’s size down low, along with the presence of a healthy Kobe Bryant, will ultimately be too much.

PREDICTION

Lakers win 4-2.

Devin Booker forces OT with deep turnaround buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Bucks beat Suns (video)

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I’m not sure who benefited from Devin Booker‘s buzzer-beating, overtime-forcing 3-pointer. The Suns still lost to the Bucks, 113-107. The extra five minutes featured more of the same relatively bad basketball we’d seen between Phoenix (bad) and Milwaukee (shorthanded) through 48 minutes.

But darn if this shot wasn’t really cool and clutch.

Three Things to Know: Angry Russell Westbrook sparks Thunder against Warriors

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. As a matter of housekeeping, this will be the last Three Things of this week, as we take a holiday break. Happy Thanksgiving!

1) Angry Russell Westbrook sparks Thunder we’ve been waiting for. Don’t make Russell Westbrook angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Unless you’re a Thunder fan, then you’ll love him. Westbrook came out with an edge we haven’t seen from him this season as he has tried to play nice and integrate Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Not Wednesday night. Wednesday night Kevin Durant and his Warriors came to town, and Westbrook was not taking it from anyone.

That sparked the Thunder team we have been waiting for all season. Westbrook finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and he was joined by Anthony with 22 points, and George with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 steals. The Thunder used a 22-10 first-quarter run to take the lead and never looked back, leading by 26 at one point and going on to win 108-91. This was by far the best the Thunder have looked all season as they have stumbled to a 7-9 start before Wednesday. Maybe this game was the spark they needed to start playing well at the end of games — they closed out well against Golden State. Maybe this was what the Thunder needed to find themselves and become the playoff threat to the Warriors we expected.

As for the Warriors… ¯_(ツ)_/¯. We haven’t said this about them this season (only the Cavaliers), but they looked disinterested much of the night (outside of Durant). Give credit to the Thunder, physical and aggressive defenses that can overplay the Warriors (and recover) give them trouble, and OKC did that. The Warriors just didn’t care to counter. They looked like a team coasting through a road trip (2-2 in their last 4), and when they ran into a quality, motivated team they didn’t have the gear. That doesn’t mean anything long-term, but it means they may be vulnerable during the season until they find their edge again. Whenever they flip the switch.

2) Miami ends Boston’s win streak at 16. For a couple of weeks now the Celtics had been living dangerously — they had to come back from double-digits to win four of their last five games heading into Wednesday night.

Their luck ran out against the Miami Heat.

Miami raced out to a double-digit first-quarter lead, pushed that lead to 19 and were comfortably ahead most of the game, and we kept waiting for the Boston run. It came in the fourth, a 13-0 push that made it a game again. However, Miami responded with a 5-0 run of their own, Dion Waiters seemed especially motivated to take on Kyrie Irving, and the Heat held on for the 104-98 win. Goran Dragic had 27 points, Waiters 26 and 6 assists.

Boston’s streak was bound to end, but they established themselves as a strong defensive team during that run, and the squad in the East best poised to knock off LeBron James and the Cavaliers. We’re a long way from the games that matter in that push — the Cavs have won six in a row, and are playing defense again — but we know the pecking order for who gets a shot at the champs. Boston will get their shot, and early on they look like they will be ready.

3) Patrick Beverley is out for the season and the Los Angeles Clippers have some hard questions to answer. For the first four games of the season, we saw the potential of what this Clipper roster could be — four head-turning wins. Then the injuries started to pile up — Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, and starting point guard Patrick Beverley — and so did the losses. Nine in a row, until they picked up a road win in Atlanta Wednesday.

Now comes a brutal blow — the Clippers have lost point guard Patrick Beverley for the season. He had microfracture surgery on his knee and will be out until next season.

That’s a real blow to the Clippers, and it means they may need to answer some harsh questions. If the losses continue to pile up and this is clearly not a playoff team by the time we get to Christmas — a reality that became a more possible on Wednesday — do they need to trade free agent to be DeAndre Jordan? Other teams are already calling and asking if he is available in a trade, if the Clippers think they can’t resign him this summer (or at least the odds are lower than they like) they have to consider the move. Los Angeles wouldn’t get a lot back for a rental, but they would get something to help the rebuild they need to consider.

The other question: How much longer is Doc Rivers the coach. The sense from many around the league is the reason he wasn’t let go when he was stripped of his GM powers this summer was he is making more than $10 million a year and had a couple of years left on his deal, and that was too much for even Steve Ballmer to just eat. Plus Rivers has shown he can coach. Whether he can coach this team still is a different question entirely. Right now, this team is not responding to him, and the sense around the league is the question is when, not if, he will be let go.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook go head-to-head, literally (video)

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This sure didn’t look like just another game for Kevin Durant – and not only because the Thunder beat the Warriors for the first time since he left.

The 108-91 Oklahoma City victory didn’t look like just another game for Russell Westbrook (34 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals), either.

Harrison Barnes banks in game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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With the shot clock off in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Grizzlies big JaMychal Green put back Tyreke Evans‘ miss with a clutch flush. There’s a very fine line between ensuring the last shot and leaving time for an offensive rebound, and Memphis threated it almost perfectly.

Emphasis on “almost.”

The Grizzlies left the Mavericks 0.5 seconds, which Harrison Barnes used to bank in a 3-pointer – off a pinpoint bounce pass by Dennis Smith Jr. – to give Dallas a 95-94 win.