There's reason to think the Denver Nuggets, against whom the Lakers open their postseason on Sunday, are a better regular season than playoff team. For one thing, their roster is deep and balanced. That sounds like a good thing and is, but largely because it helps you withstand the drudgery and attrition of
an 82- a 66-game season. The postseason brings more days off and more minutes for starters, which blunts the advantages of depth and means that more games are decided by teams' front-line talent. In that respect the Nuggets don't quite measure up to a lot of other teams in the field, including and perhaps especially the top-heavy Lakers. Their best players - point guard Ty Lawson and big men Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee - are young, gifted and athletic, but they're not (yet) polished superstars on the level of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
That the Nuggets depend so heavily on "energy and effort" guys also works against them at this time of year. The Farieds and Arron Afflalos of the basketball world, who never take a play off, give you a leg up in the regular season, when so many NBA players half-ass their way through quarters or entire games. In late April, though, everyone gets back on defense and busts ass for that loose ball. We should be careful not to overstate this point - Fareid and Afflalo have skills and IQ to go with their best-in-class motors - but unless the Lakers are completely checked out mentally (always possible), the playoff environment should elicit from them the kind of effort Denver brings to the court almost every night.
In almost every other way you can think of, however, the Nugs are a matchup terror for the purple and gold. Take pace of play. The Denver offense attacks like a bonfire spreads through dry SoCal mountain grass: quickly and with great damage to whatever's in its way. Lawson is a blur on the fast break and will test the Lakers' ever-questionable transition D. The Nuggets have the best transition offense in the league and were third in overall offensive efficiency. Although they're not a good three-point shooting team, they're a good shooting team on the whole, ranking third in effective field-goal percentage. Typical of many George Karl teams, they get to the free-throw line frequently. Fareid, Chris Andersen and McGee are likely to land Bynum and/or Gasol in foul trouble more than once during the series. Nobody in their rotation is an offensive dead spot. Even guys with limited skill sets at that end of floor, like Corey Brewer and Timofey Mozgov, have had stretches of productivity in Karl's system.
Defensively, the Nuggets aren't nearly as fearsome. They ranked just 21st in defensive efficiency, worst of any team still playing. Often their priority is generating turnovers that lead to transition opportunities. Forcing missed shots isn't a strength. George Karl does, at least, have some decent options when it comes to defending Kobe Bryant. Afflalo has the bulk, footwork and discipline to cause problems for the Black Mamba, and as a backup you could do a lot worse than Brewer. It's not clear, however, how the Nuggets can counter the inside scoring power of Bynum. He's had monster performances against Denver this season, and though a couple of them happened before the Nuggets acquired McGee, JaVale doesn't have the bulk to anchor against Drew in the post. Karl will have to decide how often to send a second defender at Drew. He's not a coach that reflexively double-teams just because, but if Bynum is in destroyer mode he won't have a choice.
Looking just at their regular-season performances against the Lakers, you'd have no idea the Nuggets were so offensively tilted. Across four games between the two teams, Denver averaged just 0.99 points per possession (regular-season average = 1.09) but they surrendered a stellar 1.01 points per trip (regular-season average for the Lakers' offense = 1.06). Three of those games happened before Valentine's Day, so the track record probably doesn't mean much. It's unlikely the Nuggets will be so easy to slow down in this series, or that they'll have as much success slowing down the Lakers. Expect a mix of high- and low-scoring games. "Controlling the pace" is a phrase you'll hear a great deal.
Both teams have health issues. For the Nugs, Wilson Chandler and Rudy Fernandez are out and Al Harrington, recently diagnosed with a meniscus tear in his knee, is questionable for Game One. On the Lakers' side of the ledger, Matt Barnes has a moderately sprained ankle. Of course, the most significant absentee will be Metta World Peace, who would've been a load for Denver to handle. Physically he could've been counted on to overpower Danilo Galinari on both ends of the court. Instead, thanks to Metta's attempt to collapse James Harden's windpipe, it'll be up to either the injured Barnes or Devin Ebanks to check the dangerous Italian. MWP will make an appearance only if the series goes the full seven.
Where the Lakers do have a clear advantage is in terms of rest. They haven't played a competitive game since last Sunday, as Thursday night in Sacramento was a scrubs-only scrimmage. Denver had a road back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday and had to play their starters both nights in an effort to preserve playoff seeding. A classic NBA adage holds that an underdog's best chance to steal home-court advantage is in Game One, but that's probably not the case here. The Lakers will take the court on Sunday with by far the fresher set of legs.
Most variables suggest we're in store for a long series. With World Peace sidelined, the overall talent level is about the same between these two teams. All four of their regular season contests were close. Had the Laker front office not pulled off the Ramon Sessions trade at midseason, the Nuggets would be the clear favorites. But with Sessions on board to even things out at the point-guard position, the Lakers should ultimately advance behind a huge series from Andrew Bynum. Prediction: Lakers in 7.