Kobe Bryant has three more championships by himself than the entire Nuggets roster. The Los Angeles Lakers have three of the best twenty players in basketball. The Lakers are 26-7 at home this year, second best in the league. Given that, will the Nuggets beat the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs? Short answer: probably not. Shorter answer: maybe. We have five reasons the Nugs might be able to pull the upset.
The case for the Lakers is the same as almost any team matching up against the Nuggets -- they simply have more elite NBA players than Denver does. But the Nuggets aren't alone in that respect. The Lakers happen to have two seven-foot beasts in Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, plus this Bryant dude, who has somehow come into five NBA titles. We'll get into nerdy stats later, but what is obvious, while not quantifiable, is that the Lakers have the talent advantage.
The broader case for the Nuggets? The team is as healthy as it has been since the start of the season and is 10-4 in April. The Nuggets rotation is as stable as it is going to be and the team must be feeling good, having pushed up to the sixth seed and avoided last year's postseason foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder. And while the Lakers won the season series 3-1, the Nuggets lost those three games by a total of thirteen points.
Look, the Lakers will likely win this series and Kobe will probably have at least one moment where he can do the big testicles dance. But here are five reasons those assumptions might prove false.
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5. Peace out: Metta World Peace, formerly known as Ron Artest or "That guy who went into the stands and punched fans in the face," will not play in this series unless it goes to a seventh game. He was suspended seven games when his elbow "accidentally" collided with James Harden's head in a game against the Thunder on Sunday.
World Peace has actually been a bad player for most of the year, so having him on the court would actually be an advantage for the Nuggets in most cases. But he seems to give Danilo Gallinari fits. In the four meetings with the Lakers this season, Gallinari shot 28 percent from the field. For those of you who don't follow the NBA too closely, that's about what you might expect Gallo to shoot if he pounded two bottles of Chianti before the game. Filling in for World Peace will be Devin Ebanks, who averaged sixteen more minutes per game for the Lakers this season than you did.
4. Pace: The Nuggets are fast, young and entertaining, while the Lakers are old, plodding and boring -- and we have the numbers to prove it. The Nuggets led the league this season in fast break points with 19.8 per game, while the Lakers were second to last in the league with a comically bad 9.4. The Nuggets were second in the league with 96.7 possessions per game, while the Lakers only averaged 92.9.
While the Lakers big men are dominant in the post in the half-court offense, the Nuggets big men are fast, athletic and dunk the shit out of the ball. The Nuggets also have the best lob passer in the game in Andre Miller and one of the fastest players in the league in Ty Lawson. For the Nuggets to have a chance in this series, they will have to induce the Lakers into playing their style, which will mean forcing bad shots or creating turnovers on the defensive end, then running relentlessly and tiring out the old legs of the Lakers.
3. Big Bodies: Yeah, the Lakers have two seven-foot tall, skilled, powerful big men who are each capable of posting a 25-15 on any given night. But the Nuggets have nearly 21 feet of pasty, partially tattooed white guy plus crazy JaVale McGee. What's up now, L.A.?
Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos can use their large frames, moderate skills and combined twelve fouls a game to at least pester Bynum and Gasol. Chris "Birdman" Andersen, who very well might not see the court at all, could be used in a pinch to provide some defense and do Birdman stuff. (Plus, his six fouls might come in handy). And JaVale McGee is the one player who could legitimately challenge the Lakers frontcourt on defense.
The problem is only one of these guys, Mozgov, starts. Rookie Keneth Faried, while all kinds of awesome and energetic, starts at power forward, as does Gasol. Faried is six-eight and Gasol is seven foot.
The Nuggets' best hope is to negate the Lakers size by getting out on the break or constantly driving the lane and trying to get the bigs in foul trouble. If that doesn't work, Birdman can elbow one of them in the head and say he was celebrating.
Page down for our top two reasons why the Nuggets might upset the Lakers. 2. Bench: If these teams were not allowed to use starters in this series at all, the Nuggets might sweep. Unfortunately, the playoffs are almost the opposite of that. Still, the Nuggets had the second-highest scoring bench in the league with 41.6 points from back-ups per game. The Lakers were dead last in this category at 21.3.
The Nuggets' strengths are their depth and versatility. Denver has six players who average double-digit points per game. However, in the playoffs, rotations usually shorten and teams' best players are on the floor more. So while Denver's bench advantage might be more critical in the regular season, when backups are playing more, it is not as big of an asset in the post-season.
On the bright side, while bench players have historically scored less on the road, the Nuggets bench actually averaged a point a game more on the road this season. Also, key bench players for the Nuggets, such as Miller, Al Harrington and Corey Brewer, are the most veteran players on the team and less likely to get rattled by playoff pressure. At least that's the theory.
1. Kobe Bean Bryant: This may seem counter-intuitive, because Bryant is also the number one or two reason the Lakers are likely to win this series. But here's a little secret: Kobe is no longer the best, most efficient offensive option for the Lakers. Andrew Bynum is.
Bynum is shooting 82 percent in crunch-time. That's a real stat, not a typo.
Kobe shot 42 percent from the field after the All-Star break. He shot 38 percent in the month of March and has been battling a shin injury that kept him out of several games in April. The Lakers are simply worse when Kobe is jacking up a ton of shots and hitting on less than half of them. In the playoffs, if a game is close in the final minutes, he's even more likely to play hero-ball and force a contested jumper with two defenders in his face rather than giving the ball to the guy who shoots 82 percent in those situations.
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Bryant has played fifteen years in the NBA, but head coach Mike Brown still felt it wise to let him lead the league in minutes played during this hellacious, lockout-shortened schedule. The Nuggets can hope that takes its toll on Bryant's old legs and he becomes an inefficient jump-shooter who ignores two of the most skilled big men in the game. The Nuggets seem capable of that, as they forced Bryant into 27 percent shooting in the three games he played against Denver this year.
The counter-argument is that he's Kobe Fucking Bryant. He has won five NBA titles and is more than capable of leading the Lakers past a Nuggets team with no players near his level. He has played in more career playoff games (175) than the entire active Nuggets roster (168).
Actually, that's a pretty decent argument.
More from our Sports archive: "Nuggets give themselves chance at life without World Peace with OKC win."