Like the June gloom, there is one thing you can count on in May in Los Angeles — panic from Lakers Nation. And all it usually takes is one loss. This year, the panic is beginning already with Metta World Peace suspended for the first six games of the series, further depleting a roster that is not as deep as last year when Lamar Odom was bringing a little of everything off the bench. Lest we forget, those deeper Lakers were swept by the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. This year, there is a new coach, a new point guard and a core that is as talented as ever but is a year older. Here are five factors to watch for:
- THE KOBE FACTOR: Mamba usually plays through every type of injury imaginable, so it was somewhat shocking to see him miss eight of the Lakers’ final 10 games with a shin injury. Playing it safe? Or masking a problem that is more serious than the Lakers are letting on. You know he’s going to get his shots up, but you don’t know if his season-long accuracy issues will carry over into the postseason. The Kobester shot 43 percent overall and .303 on 3-pointers, his lowest numbers in a decade. Still, if it comes down to a one-shot game, you don’t want to bet against him.
- THE BIGS FACTOR: The Lakers have the best front line in the business in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, while the Nuggets are still trying to integrate JaVale McGee into their program and will start a rookie, Kenneth “Manimal” Faried against the much more experienced Gasol. Did anyone ever imagine Timofey Mozgov might be a key playoff factor. He has the bulk to defend Bynum and keep him off the boards, but he has failed to earn coach George Karl’s confidence in his 1 1/2 seasons in Denver. Kosta Koufos? Bynum will eat him up like a gyro. Looking deeper down Denver’s bench, Chris “Birdman” Andersen has been in the doghouse all season.
- THE PACE FACTOR: The Nuggets averaged a league-leading 104.1 points per game. The Lakers went through stretches of 13 games and then 7 games when they ailed to reach 100 points in a single game — although that was before they made their trade deadline moves and brought in Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill. As it is, their 97.3 points per game left them ranked 15th in the league (only Dallas and Memphis averaged fewer among Western Conference playoff teams).
- THE COACHES FACTOR: We have all seen Mike Brown’s offensive (lack of) creativity in close fourth quarters of playoff games. When he was guiding the Cavaliers, it was give the ball to LeBron James and have everyone else clear out. Does he revert to that method despite having a much more talented supporting cast, especially down low? If the Nuggets double-up on Kobe, it will leave shooters open. But the Lakers were only 26th in the NBA in 3-point accuracy. George Karl has coached 172 playoff games. He knows a few tricks.
- THE BENCHES FACTOR: With World Peace suspended, the Lakers will have to start someone else and hope he can consistently get a hand in the face of Danilo Gallinari, whose 3-point prowess will be a huge factor (although Ty Lawson (.365) and Arron Afflalo (.398) were more accurate marksmen. The Nuggets also bring two capable vets off the bench in Andre Miller (edge over Steve Blake) and Al Harrington (edge over Josh McRoberts). Also in reserve for Karl is Corey Brewer, one of the better defensive players in the West. He’ll spend time checking Kobe.
SHERIDAN: Lakers in 7.
HUBBARD: Lakers in 5.
HEISLER: Lakers in 7.
BERNUCCA: Lakers in 6.
HAMILTON: Lakers in 6.
PERKINS: Lakers in 6.
ZAGORIA: Lakers in 5.
PARK: Lakers in 7.
For the complete first-round NBA playoff schedule, click here.
OTHER SERIES PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS