The Lakers knew they would be shorthanded in the first round, after Metta World Peace was suspended for the series' first six games for his misguided elbow, but they only found out Wednesday night they will be facing one of the deepest teams in the NBA. The Nuggets will exhaust the Lakers' starters, expose their flimsy second unit, and throw three different 7-footers at center Andrew Bynum. But teams like the Nuggets, without a proven star, usually falter in the playoffs because they don't have a place to turn for instant offense at the end of games. In other words, they don't have a closer like Kobe Bryant, who is rested and primed for this series. One candidate is Danilo Gallinari, who is healthy again, and could fill the void if he rediscovers the touch he showed in the first six weeks of the season.
Ty Lawson vs. Ramon Sessions. The Lakers exiled Derek Fisher because he could no longer keep up with the NBA's new generation of quicksilver point guards, a group that counts Lawson as a charter member. The Lakers replaced Fisher with Sessions, who is by no means a defensive stopper, but can make the matchup with Lawson more respectable. Lawson is fast enough to break down the Lakers defense, and while he will have trouble finishing over Bynum, he can kick out to open shooters. The Nuggets lead the league in points per game, largely because they also lead the league in assists per game. If they look back at last year's playoffs, they will see that the Mavericks beat the Lakers with ball movement and uncontested three-pointers.
Lakers: Devin Ebanks. When the season opened, he was in the starting lineup. Then he was in the Development League. And now he is back in the starting lineup. Ebanks shone after World Peace was ejected from the Lakers' final home game, thwarting Kevin Durant in a double-overtime win. He obviously cannot defend as well as World Peace, but Ebanks should see a lot of open jumpers with the attention paid to Bryant and Bynum. The Lakers have sputtered from the perimeter all season. Ebanks has a chance to play his way into their future plans.
Nuggets: JaVale McGee. He has been as inconsistent with Denver as he was with Washington, in fewer minutes. But McGee was at his best on April 13 against the Lakers, with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and he has scored in double figures the past four games. The Nuggets have used McGee sparingly, but coaches have worked with him extensively behind the scenes, hoping he will be ready to assume a larger role in the playoffs. He has plenty of motivation: McGee will be a restricted free agent after the season and is hoping for a long-term contract.
At the end of every game, the Lakers will have the three best players on the court: Bryant, Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Nuggets, with their up-tempo style, will test the Lakers' stamina and depth. But stars win in the playoffs, and so does defense. The Nuggets rank 29th in points allowed, partly because of their breakneck pace. But if the pace slows, as often happens in the postseason, the advantage shifts to the Lakers. For all they have lost, they still have two of the most skilled 7-footers in the world, which makes them difficult to contain in the half court. Lakers in six.