By Craig Kwasniewski
Lakers vs. Nuggets... which wins out, the streaking team or the team with the better match-ups? The Nuggets come in as the hottest team in the playoffs, running through the first two rounds and with a growing bandwagon loaded with all the "experts" labeling them the dark horse team du jour. The Lakers roll in, bruised and battered after a very unexpected 7-game series against the thoroughly undermanned yet prideful Houston Rockets. They no longer look like a lock for the NBA Finals.
Here's a brief rundown on the series...
It's 1992 all over again: This series reminds me of the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals between Cleveland and Chicago. The Bulls just finished a very grueling 7-game series against the the New York Knicks. Before the series, people expected the Bulls to run through New York in 5 or 6 games, but they were caught off guard and somewhat intimidated by the Knicks physical presence (Xavier McDaniel alone had Pippen in a fetal position the entire series). Eventually Jordan pulled Chicago through in Game 7, matching the Knicks effort on both ends of the floor. Phil Jackson even used video of Jordan blocking X-Man from behind as motivation for the Lakers in a film session earlier this week.
Anyway, the Bulls went from playing a slug-it-out possession-by-possession series into a more offensive-oriented game against Cleveland and easily dispatched them in 6. This series plays out the exact same way. Denver just doesn't have the right mind-set to play the brute-physical style of the Rockets. Don't get me wrong, they'll bring it physically, but not with the same kind of defensive control like the 1992 Knicks or 2009 Rockets.
Lakers weakness: Quite simply, the Lakers can't defend small and quick guards and they're weak on the defensive glass. Chauncey Billups is a lot bigger than Aaron Brooks and is more of a pull-up jump shooter than the driving/slashing Billups that killed the Lakers back in 2004. However, the Nuggets will get theirs on the offensive glass with K-Mart and Nene.
The other VERY glaring weakness is the Lakers effort... which is VERY disturbing that the Lakers have saved their playoff efforts until they have to.
Nuggets weakness: Shhhhh... nobody realizes this but the Nuggets front line is kinda small. Nene is 6-11, Anderson is 6-10 and K-Mart is 6-9 (but really he's 6-7)... they got away with being small against an even smaller New Orleans squad that game up on the coach and very slow Dallas team, but the Lakers throw out Pau Gasol at 7-0, Andrew Bynum at 7-0 and Lamar Odom at 6-11. They'll have to be even quicker against LA to have a chance.
Their other weakness that we have yet to see in the playoff is that they're loaded with knuckleheads from the head coach on down to the team trainer. Winning cures everything and beating far inferior opponents makes it seam as though the Nuggets are cured of all the past indiscretions. Let's see how they react when they're down a game or two in the series.
Coaching match-up: Phil Jackson is 11-1 in the Conference Finals with an 11 series winning streak. George Karl has lost in the first round of the postseason 10 out of 18 postseason appearances. One thing the Rockets series taught me is that the 63-year old version of Phil Jackson is not the same version as the three peat era. Clearly he's lost his fastball but he's still one of the top 5 coaches in the NBA. With Karl, I almost feel like he's winning with Denver solely because of Chaucey Billups and his job is to just get out of the way. Has there even been a more miss-match of coaches in the playoffs? (Well at least until Jackson takes on Mike Brown.)
The Big Question: Really this series comes down to Denver's ability to play defense. Do they have the right mentality to defend Kobe like the Rockets and Celtics? *NO* And this is really what this series comes down to... defending the opponents best player. When motivated, the Lakers have shown the ability to contain players like Carmelo Anthony and the slower Chauncey Billups but Denver doesn't have the roster to contain Kobe. Sure they can try to intimidate Gasol and Odom out of the series and they will probably succeed in a few games, but over a seven game series you're asking a high-octane offense-first team to suddenly slow down and contain a front line of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom with Kobe Bryant pulling the strings... not an easy thing to do...
The Prediction: The big if comes down to the Lakers effort. IF they play like they're supposed to (Games 3, 5 and 7 against Houston), the Lakers win this series in 5. But as we've seen, the Lakers have taken the occasional playoff game off... which Lakers squad shows up determines this series... either way, I'm sticking with the Lakers in 5.