The Denver Nuggets face their current nemesis tonight as the Los Angeles Lakers roll into town. With the best team in the west in town we needed to do something special.
Instead of a regular preview I have sought out the thoughts of some of the best Lakers bloggers on the internet. The Nuggets are clinging to the third seed in the west and they have been receiving some good press lately about how they are ready to contend for the Western Conference title. I wanted to find out if those people who follow the defending conference champs, who are also the favorites to go to the finals again, are buying the Nuggets as a threat.
The contributors are Brian Kamenetzky from the LA Times Lakers Blog , Jonathan from Lakers Nation and hitting cleanup will be Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold. Look for some content from me on each of these sites at some point today as well.
The rambling setup and question from Roundball Mining Company: When the playoff seedings were set last season and it was determined the Lakers were going to be playing the Nuggets in the first round it was almost as if the Lakers received a bye. Fans and media alike instantly began talking about the second round before the series even tipped off. The general consensus this season is the Nuggets are a much improved team, but the Lakers easily defeated Denver in their sole meeting since the Billups trade. In your opinion would the current version of the Nuggets be able to compete with the Lakers in a seven game series any better than they did last season? Do Lakers observers take the Nuggets seriously? Should they?
Brian Kamenetzky: I don’t know if it’s a sagging economy grinding up newspapers and those who work for them like corn meal, global warming, or a potentially nuclear Iran, but these days it seems like everything has me worried. When it comes to the Western Conference, that includes the Nuggets. Denver ’08-’09 deserves to be taken seriously (certainly moreso than last year’s group, which had all the cohesion and unity of Fleetwood Mac), primarily because they’re (I almost said “again,” but I’m not entirely sure it’s ever happened) playing defense. Fourth in opponents FG%, a respectable eighth in defensive efficiency. Nene is making a big impact- his on/off court splits are impressive- and Chauncey is certainly an upgrade over A.I. in that regard. On the other side they still can fill it up, except with Billups there’s more method and less madness. Plus, Melo has been playing, at least in my intermittent viewing, a more complete floor game.
That said, I don’t think Denver is one of the two teams in the W.C. that could knock off LA in the playoffs, especially if the Lakers have Bynum back. (My list is comprised of the Spurs and a newly healthy Jazz squad. With AK47 and Boozer back, they’re scary, and create some interesting matchup issues for the Lakers.) The Nuggs are in that second tier with Houston and Portland. I admit, though, my view could still be colored by biases towards previous incarnations of the team. Those can be hard to shake. I’d say that’s a pretty common thing across the media, and certainly among fans. Denver’s current winning percentage isn’t light years ahead of last year’s pace, but the team’s ability to compete in the postseason is much stronger and they probably don’t get the respect they deserve.
In fact, you’ve inspired me with your question. Unless you tell me different, I’ll start adding “…and don’t sleep on Denver” to my Western Conference evaluations.
RMC: In your opinion would the current version of the Nuggets be able to compete with the Lakers in a seven game series any better than they did last season?
Jonathan: Potentially this Nuggets team could be a tougher match up this year than last year, but I’m not entirely sure about that.
A healthy Nene has done wonders for your interior D, and that was probably where the Lakers most took advantage of the Nuggets in the playoffs. I mean, God bless Marcus Camby and all, but Nene and K-Mart are doing a much better job of.. you know.. playing defense.
However, that doesn’t take into account what the Lakers were able to do defensively in the playoffs last year, and have continued to do this year.
Last year Luke Walton and Vlad Radmanovic were able to do a much better job on Melo than we could have possibly hoped for, holding him to 36% shooting. This year he’s shooting an even more abmysal 29%(!). in two losses, he’s shot 5-15, and 5-19. For the Nuggets to have a shot at beating the Lakers in a 7-game series, he’ll have to play a lot better than that.
RMC: Do Lakers observers take the Nuggets seriously?
Jonathan: I don’t think so. Lakers fans are an arrogant bunch to start out with, so I doubt any of them/us really consider the Nuggets a threat at this point.
Also of note, Derek Fisher does a lot better guarding bigger point guards like D-Will, J-Kidd and Billups, and so Lakers fans really weren’t too concerned by AI leaving in that trade (let’s all stop and laugh at the Pistons for a moment =D).
RMC: Should they?
Jonathan: I think so. Billups on Kobe is a lot more plausible than K-Mart on Kobe, that’s for sure. This year’s Nuggets are better than last year’s Nuggets, but at the same time, this year’s are better than last years Lakers as well. I wouldn’t put too much stock into Denver’s Billups Era loss, as we had Bynum then and it doesn’t look like we’ll have him for this playoff run either. Truely, the game on the 27th will be a more accurate reflection of how these two teams match up.
I expect that a 7-game series would ultimately end with the Lakers being victorious, but it wouldn’t be considered a bye.. not anymore.
RMC: Can the Nuggets compete with the Lakers and do Lakers observers/fans take the Nuggets seriously?
Kurt: There are two questions in there that get different answers. Yes, this Nuggets team can compete much better with the Lakers than last year’s version, and the Lakers had better take them seriously. With Billups at the point this just appears to be a smarter, more controlled team that plays better defense, picks its spots and attacks mismatches better, not to mention can shoot the three ball better. The pushing of the pace last year seemed to lead to almost reckless play, now things appear more steady. That is why if the Lakers and Nuggets were to meet this year it would be in the second round, the Nuggets are a better that nobody wants in the first round. I will add, I don’t think there is a team in the West that can beat a healthy Lakers squad, they are too talented and too deep, not to mention they can play good defense when they want to. But certainly a series between these team’s this year would be more competitive.
However, to your second question, I don’t think most casual Lakers fans and observers think of the Nuggets differently than last year. I think for much of the fan base the expectations would be a sweep going in, and some media members would happily feed into that. But the Nuggets will change that perception this playoffs, both for Lakers fans and anyone thinking that league wide. They are a legitimately good team and people will get to know that.
Prior to the first matchup between these two teams with Chauncey Billups leading the way for Denver I was very excited. After the game I was much less so. Due to the Nuggets poor play as of late coupled with their inability to defeat the Lakers I have already marked this game down as a loss. Any assistance Denver hoped to get from Phoenix did not materialize as the Suns were not able to challenge the Lakers when they played last night in Los Angeles. The Lakers were not overly taxed and the fact that the Lakers are playing on the second night of a back to back set will probably not be a factor.
Right now the most recent news we have on whether or not Nene will play is a quote from George Karl provided by Chris Tomasson, “there’s a chance he will play.” Check out the article to see what Lakers players are saying about the Nuggets and whether or not they have closed the gap between the two teams.
Update: As Stumbleweed told us in the comments, Benjamin Hochman from the Denver Post is reporting Nene will play, but he will come off the bench leaving Petro as the starter.
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