— Just what the Lakers needed, a dominating 19-point win at home in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals to stay alive in their quest to win a championship. Houston pushed the Lakers to the brink of elimination and gained the respect of every organization in the NBA. The Lakers never expected such a tough test in the second round, but this past series is exactly what they needed to refocus and be reminded just how much work is still in front of them.
Not only do I get to participate in the national media coverage that Lakers receive because I live in L.A. but I also watch the impact the local media has on this proud fan base. It was a surprise to see how hard fans hammered Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum for not easily beating an undermanned Houston team. Jackson did not have the Lakers ready to play in at least two games against the Rockets and Rick Adelman outcoached him for most of the series. Bryant had his hands full trying to get into an offensive rhythm with Shane Battier guarding him and putting a hand in his face on every jump shot. Bynum looked like an inexperienced 21-year-old, in over his head, until he woke up in Game 7 and helped his team advance to take on the Denver Nuggets.
The criticism will fuel every member of the Lakers throughout the remainder of the playoffs. They have to take it personally and show more emotion after so many of their loyal fans criticized them along with several NBA analysts including Charles Barkley and their own Magic Johnson. Magic was justified to question their effort and focus throughout the Houston series and he was one of the first insiders to see the problems that a team like the Rockets could cause if L.A. didn't play at its highest level. Other members of the media were just looking for an excuse to jump off the Lakers’ bandwagon.
The Lakers, however, are experienced enough to see the good in what came out of a tough series and take their bruised egos into the Western Conference finals and eliminate the Denver Nuggets. L.A. has always dominated Denver and it will not be overwhelmed by the sudden improvement of the Nuggets. The Lakers have the best player, head coach, front court and bench.
Los Angeles won 11 more games than Denver in the regular season and won the season series 3-1. In those wins, Bryant scored 33 points twice and 29 in the other. He even scored 29 in the losing effort, so I expect him to average over 30 points against the Nuggets in the series. Bryant loves going up against Denver's defense because he is quick off the dribble and can easily get his shot off. Denver does not have a perimeter defender with the likes of Battier, so Bryant should have many open looks from 15-18 feet.
Denver coach George Karl understands that Bryant will get his points so he will instruct his team to play physical defense on Pau Gasol. Kenyon Martin will cherish this role and make Gasol pay for any easy buckets around the rim. Gasol will have to deal with the double team of Nene and Martin when he tries to gain position on the low block as Denver wants to force him to pass the ball back out to his guards. The Lakers' big men are exceptional at passing the ball and finding open teammates slashing down the lane and this will give them a huge advantage in this series. Denver is much improved on defense, but they still are not experts in covering Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.
Los Angeles' bench did not not excel against Denver in the regular season but they still have better skilled players. Lamar Odom will have to take advantage of his minutes and give Jackson a reason to keep him on the court. Odom can't afford to sleepwalk in any game and must crash the boards and get critical rebounds if Bynum gets in foul trouble early in any game. Derek Fisher was a liability in the Houston series and he can't afford to get in another shooting slump or Jordan Farmar will take more of his playing time away at pint guard.
Chauncey Billups found new life in Denver after he was traded from Detroit for Alan Iverson and began his new leadership role at point guard. Karl’s season was saved when Billups played in his first game on Nov. 7. From that point forward, Billups proved that he could make big shots in the clutch and lead by example on and off the court. The trade for Billups was the most important move of the year for the Nuggets and all of his new teammates instantly improved and got in line. The “Bird Man” Chris Anderson has played spectacularly in the second half of the season and his energy and shot blocking ability should cause a few problems for the Lakers while shooting guard JR Smith is averaging more than 16 points in the postseason.
The only chance that Denver has to eliminate Los Angeles is for Carmelo Anthony to have a spectacular series. He is an elite scorer and must be counted on to have several big games in which he scores over 30 points. He is averaging 27 points in the playoffs, but was held to 15 points or less in three of the regular season games against Los Angeles. The Lakers want Anthony to float on the perimeter and take long-range jump shots instead of using his athletic ability close to the rim. Trevor Ariza will be called on to force Anthony to put up tough jump shots while Lamar Odom must quickly get in front of him if he drives towards the basket. It also remains to be seen if Anthony can play with a level head if Bryant has a big scoring night?
Prediction? The Lakers win in six games.