Western Conference Finals Preview | Sharapova's Thigh

Los Angeles Lakers vs.
Denver Nuggets

Season Series
Lakers win 3-1

The Lakers won a back and forth affair in Denver in the first week of the season, 104 - 97. Several weeks later LA trounced the Nuggets in Los Angeles 104 - 90 (it wasn't even that close). Denver won a hard fought match-up at the end of February 90 - 79. At the end of the regular season the Lakers handed the Nuggets their only legit defeat (Nuggets lost in Portland on the last night of the regular season after they had secured the 2 seed) over the last 3+ weeks of the season, by a closer-than-the-scoreboard-indicates margin of 116 - 102.

Preview
The Nuggets come in playing the best ball in the Western Conference. They dismantled the Hornets in 5 games in the First Round and similarly dispatched the Mavericks in a chippy, soap operaesque, 5 game Second Round series. Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony make up the highest scoring duo in the 2009 Playoffs. The Nuggets have been the highest scoring team in the Playoffs this year beating their opponents by a staggering 16.0 points per game. The trio of Chris Andersen, Anthony Carter and JR Smith make up what has been the best bench of any team in the Playoffs.

The Lakers come into the series on a different note. LA dominated Utah and dismissed the Jazz in 5 in the First Round. Then came what can only be described as the most bizarre playoff series that I can recall watching, maybe in any sport. The Red Sox comeback from 3-0 down comes to mind immediately for historical purposes, but for sheer weirdness I'm drawing a blank. The Lakers split at home then won game 3 in Houston. The first 3 games of the series will be remembered for physical play and technical fouls. After game 3 news of Yao Ming's season ending foot injury seemed to assure the Lakers of a 5 game victory. Well that's when the really physical morphed into truely bizarre. The Rockets dismantled LA in game 4. The Lakers then dismantled the Rockets in game 5 only to have Houston pull another rabbit out of the hat in game 6 and force LA to play a game 7.

Kobe Bryant is really really really good. LeBron is his only equal on this planet. Pau Gasol is the best 2nd option in the league. Trevor Ariza has blossomed as the season has progressed and is now a very solid role player and defensive stopper for LA. Andrew Bynum beams potential and has shown flashes of dependability since returning from injury, but he has also been woefully inconsistent.

X-Factor: Andrew Bynum vs. Nene
Denver has the advantage at Point Guard and Small Forward. LA has the advantage at Shooting Guard and Power Forward. That leaves the Center position as the only toss up.

Bynum and Nene have put up similar numbers in the Playoffs up to this point. They are both averaging just shy of 15 points per game and just under 8 rebounds a game. Bynum has the size advantage. Nene has the quickness advantage. Nene is also better from outside of 8 feet. This match up gets extra attention since Lamar Odom is hobbled.

The foul situation for both players will be interesting to watch. If Bynum gets in early foul trouble the Nuggets will have a distinct size advantage as LA doesn't have an front court depth. Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga just aren't good at basketball. Trevor Ariza could slide up and play some 4 with his length but that is a temporary solution at best.

The Nuggets counter with a bench of Chris Andersen and....well Chris Andersen. He is a better option should Nene get in foul trouble than if Bynum gets the harsh end of the whistle.

X-Factor #2: J.R. Smith
J.R. Smith firmly established himself as a consistent player this year. Gone are the days of his pouting, no defense, shoot for the sake of shooting attitude. He can put bunches of points on the board quicker than any player remaining in the Playoffs, including LBJ and KB24. J.R.'s most important contribution might come on the defensive end. In the Nuggets' February triumph over LA J.R. locked down Kobe. He has the length, height and leaping ability to make jump shooting tough on Kobe. He also has enough quickness to stay in front of Kobe. If J.R. can get quality defensive minutes on Kobe things bode well for the Nuggets.

Prediction
Lakers in 7.

I hate it, but you can't bet against Kobe Bryant. This will be a great series. The Nuggets haven't lost in Denver since March 9, but they need to get one on the road in this series. Betting against Kobe Bryant, home court advantage and Phil Jackson just isn't smart. Furthermore, George Karl always manages to come up with a stupid game plan for defending Kobe. Last year and the first couple games this year the plan was to play Kobe physically. Well, as per usual, when Kobe was pushed he responded by laying the smack down on the Nuggets. If J.R. and Dahntay Jones can play solid D the Nugs might steal a game in LA, I just don't see it thought. I want with all of my heart to pick the Nuggets, I just can't though. (Tear)

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