The Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers enter these Western Finals as a heavy favorite, but after being pushed to the brink by the Rockets in the last round, their predestined trip to the NBA Finals no longer seems like such a given.
Kobe, Phil, and Co. won a conference best 65-regular season games, which earned them home-court advantage in this series, and they still almost unquestionably own more offensive firepower than anyone else in the NBA. When they’re running on all cylinders, keeping them under 110 points is a pipe-dream.
The only question for the squad remains, can they play with championship-caliber defensive intensity on a night-in, night-out basis? Three losses to Houston in the conference-semis suggest maybe not.
Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson still haven’t won a championship in Hollywood since Shaq left for South Beach after the ’04 Finals… they have eight wins to go to get one.
The Denver Nuggets
If Chauncey Billups wanted to be be Governor of Colorado, I think he’d have a legitimate shot to win. That’s how good Denver’s prodigal son has been since being traded back to his hometown team from Detroit in a 1-for-1 swap for Allen Iverson earlier this season.
The Nuggets outclassed and easily eliminated the #7 seeded Hornets and #6 seeded Mavericks in their first two playoff rounds and now are becoming a trendy upset pick amongst NBA Insiders.
Baltimore and Towson Catholic’s own, Carmelo Anthony, has improved vastly this season coming of a gold-medal winning trip to the Olympics and playing alongside Billups. They, along with J.R. Smith coming off the bench, form the core for the NBA’s highest scoring high-flying act.
Game 1: Tuesday, May 19, Nuggets at Lakers, 9 p.m., ESPN
Game 2: Thursday, May 21, Nuggets at Lakers, 9 p.m., ESPN
Game 3: Saturday, May 23, Lakers at Nuggets, 8:30 p.m., ABC
Game 4: Monday, May 25, Lakers at Nuggets, 9 p.m., ESPN
Game 5: Wednesday, May 27, Nuggets at Lakers, 9 p.m., ESPN*
Game 6: Friday, May 29, Lakers at Nuggets, 9 p.m., ESPN*
Game 7: Sunday, May 31, Nuggets at Lakers, 8:30 p.m., ABC*
LAL: Derek Fisher – 9.9 pts, 3.2 assts
DEN: Chauncey Billups – 17.7 pts, 6.4 assts, 3.0 rebs
LAL: Kobe Bryant – 26.8 pts, 5.2 rebs, 4.9 assts
DEN: Dahantay Jones – 5.4 pts, 2.1 rebs
LAL: Trevor Ariza – 8.9 pts, 4.3 rebs
DEN: Carmelo Anthony – 22.8 pts, 6.8 rebs, 3.4 assts
LAL: Pau Gasol – 18.9 pts, 9.6 rebs, 3.5 assts
DEN: Kenyon Martin – 11.7 pts, 6.0 rebs
LAL: Andrew Bynum – 14.3 pts, 8.0 rebs
DEN: Nene Hilario – 14.6 pts, 7.8 rebs
The Keys to Victory
LAL: Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bynum. Plain and simple, he’s the difference-maker. Through his great start to the season, to his knee injury that cost him over 30 games, to these playoffs where he’s played a consistent and solid 15mpg, he’s always been the key for this edition of the Lakers. He was out hurt during last year’s Finals loss to Boston and when healthy he provides exactly what the L.A. needs to put them over the top. Will he stay tough enough down low to take on the brute strength of Denver’s front-line through a long, grueling series?
DEN: For the Nuggets to pull off the upset they’ll need to play at their best in their half court sets. They can run all they want for the first three quarters, but to win in the conference finals you need to execute in a late-game, slow-it-down situations. Chauncey Billups was brought in for that reason and that reason alone. He’s one of the best in the game at delivering the basketball to his team’s scorers, so it’ll be up to Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith to knock down clutch jump shots to preserve a victory or steal a win. Then, again… if Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot – ’04 Finals MVP” Billups ends up taking the last shot, that’s not too bad either.
The Fearless Prediction
Lakers in 7. In this round, Kobe won’t allow his team to lose in the Staples Center.