Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant smiles as he hands the ball back to a referee in Minneapolis

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.

DeMarcus Cousins says Mavericks’ rumored interest flatters him, but he loves Kings

Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) receives a blow to the head from Dallas Mavericks' Dwight Powell as Cousins works to get to the basket in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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The Mavericks’ long-rumored interest in DeMarcus Cousins took its most direct public turn before the season, when Dallas signed Cousins’ brother, Jaleel Cousins. Jaleel is now on the Mavericks’ D-League affiliate, and I bet he will remain there as DeMarcus approaches 2018 free agency.

Brad Townsend of The Dallas Morning News:

So, DeMarcus Cousins, what do you think about the Mavericks’ long-rumored interest in acquiring you?

“It’s flattering,” Cousins told me, with a laugh, after the Kings’ Wednesday shootaround at AAC. Then, turning serious, he added of the Mavericks, “I respect them.”

“But,” I said, “I’ve also heard that you like it in Sacramento.”

“No,” Cousins corrected, “I love Sacramento.”

Cousins is getting good at this, toeing the line between appreciating another team’s interest and expressing his satisfaction with the Kings.

And give Cousins credit. He keeps producing at a star level for a team that hasn’t provided him with the proper support. Sacramento again appears headed toward the lottery, even as Cousins averages 29-10.

Questions remain, though: How much of Cousins’ attitude is him trying to make the best of an inescapable situation, and will expanded options in the summer of 2018 test his loyalty?

LeBron James dunks, struts past camerapeople and toward crowd, spooks fan (video)

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LeBron James is dominating, and the Cavaliers are rolling over the Knicks.

It’s almost as if something has LeBron particularly riled up. But maybe ease up a little? That cowering fan isn’t Phil Jackson.

Kevin Love drips snot all over his face, maybe into his mouth (video)

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Cameras zoomed in on Kevin Love at the wrong moment:

Need a sensory cleanser? Enjoy this fantastic outlet pass from Kevin Love to LeBron James:

Derrick Rose out for Knicks-Cavaliers with back injury, getting MRI

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22:  Derrick Rose #25 of the New York Knicks dribbles against the Portland Trail Blazers during their game at Madison Square Garden on November 22, 2016 in New York City.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Derrick Rose is missing the New York Knicks’ game against Cleveland because of lower back pain.

Rose left the Knicks’ victory over Miami on Tuesday in the third quarter with back spasms. Coach Jeff Hornacek says Rose still felt sore on Wednesday when he came in and met with team doctors, so they sent him for an MRI exam to make sure there was no structural damage.

Rose is averaging 16.7 points and this is the first game he’s missed this season.

Brandon Jennings will start in Rose’s place.