Expect Nugs To Put Up Fight, Fall Short

A Daily Babble Production

Western Conference Finals: (1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (2) Denver Nuggets

By the Numbers

W-L

Reg Season Off.  Eff.(Rk)

RS DE (Rk)

Playoff OE (Rk)

Playoff DE (Rk)

Denver Nuggets

54-28

110.4 (7)

106.8 (8)

118.5 (1)

101.3 (4)

LA Lakers

65-17

112.8 (3)

104.7 (6)

108.1 (4)

99.2 (3)

When the 2009 Western Conference Finals begin tonight at the Staples Center, they will include a team that I predicted would miss the playoffs back at season's start.

Seems like as good a time as ever for my Denver Nuggets-related mea culpa: In short, I said the Nuggets wouldn't be able to defend well after the loss of Marcus Camby and that they had too many knuckleheads to be effective in the long term, no matter how much offensive firepower those knuckleheads provided.

In fairness to me, the Nuggets made a drastic change to alter the course of their season in trading Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups three games into the season.  But I still can't claim to have really comprehended at the time just how much of a difference the removal of one distraction and addition of the 2004 Finals MVP would make.

Billups returned to his hometown team and immediately took over as its leader.  The results were mind-blowing: Between the insertions of a defensive-minded point guard and the contributions of back-from-cancer center Nene Hilario, the Nuggets didn't miss a beat defensively, finishing eighth in defensive efficiency during the regular season.  It didn't hurt that with Billups setting the tone, Carmelo Anthony played with more intensity than ever before at that end.  Kenyon Martin and free agent signee Chris Andersen added rugged play on the interior as well, and Dahntay Jones helped out on the perimeter.

At the offensive end, the Nuggets continued to do plenty of running (sixth in the league in pace) and plenty of scoring (seventh in offensive efficiency).  It really is amazing just how much it means to have a sound decision-maker controlling the basketball.  Billups kept the ball moving and made sure Melo, Nene, J.R. Smith and others got their touches and buckets while making his share of big shots as well.

Credit George Karl for keeping his players on the same page all season and managing to make it through a year with Melo, Smith, Martin and Andersen with surprisingly few distractions.  Credit Billups for reshaping this team's personality, and score one for Mark Warkentien in the front office for pulling the trigger on the deal that brought him to town.  Finally, credit the rest of the crew for buying in throughout the season.

So that's my long-belated bit of lovin' for this Nuggets team.  The Nugs have earned it with a 54-win regular season, consistent effort at both ends of the floor and two rounds of playoff performances in which they absolutely dismantled New Orleans and Dallas.

But it seems to me that their pleasant surprise of a season has no more than two weeks remaining.

The Nuggets enter this series with one distinct advantage over the Western Conference's top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers: point guard play.

Billups has been without question the class of the league's point guard crop in these playoffs.  Not only is he leading a Nuggets offense that is scoring six more points per 100 possessions than the next closest unit (Cleveland) in the postseason, not only is he averaging 22.8 points and 7.3 assists per game, but he is getting his points on insane 71.6 percent true shooting.  Billups is getting to the foul line (6.9 attempts per game in the playoffs), bombing from the outside (a bonkers 33-for-61 so far), doing just about whatever he wants with the ball and playing defense as well.  Derek Fisher is not an answer to this guy.  Jordan Farmar is not an answer to this guy.  Shannon Brown, if he is still collecting some minutes as de facto point, is not an answer to this guy.  Note the pattern here, please.

Bench play could be a second edge for Denver depending on what goes on in the pivot for the Lakers.  J.R. Smith gets on the floor to do one thing - shoot the rock - and does that one thing quite well: After posting a 57.6 percent true shooting mark during the season, he has upped that to 61 percent in the playoffs, shooting the three-pointer at a clip better than 40 percent while pouring in 16.3 points per game.  Smith is a threat to score anytime he touches the ball inside halfcourt, and he will require a ton of defensive attention.  Meanwhile, Chris Andersen has continued his revival campaign in the postseason, blocking shots (averaging nearly two in 21 minutes per game for the playoffs), cleaning the glass and engaging in copious amounts of dunking and wing-flapping.  The Birdman's energy continues to play an important role for the Nugs.

But that edge could be mitigated if Lakers center Andrew Bynum is able to pick up where he left off in Game 7 of the purple and gold's semifinal series against Houston.  Playing against the Rockets' undersized front line, Bynum feasted on lobs and putbacks to notch his best game of the playoffs, a 6-for-7 outing for 14 points.  He totaled 28 points on 11-for-13 shooting in the Lakers' wins in games five and seven (with an oh-for in between), and if he can continue to stay in the lineup, the Lakers will have the luxury of bringing Lamar Odom off the bench.  While Odom didn't enjoy the same success against the Rockets that he did in the first round against the Jazz, the lanky forward continued to make his presence felt on the glass, block shots inside and score efficiently from the field. 

This brings us to the issue of the front lines.  While Martin and Nene have done admirable work all season for the Nugs, they don't have the talent or the size to match-up with the trio of Odom, Bynum and most of all Pau Gasol if the former two are playing good basketball.  Martin plays a physical game, but at 6-foot-9 he doesn't have the size to match up with 7-foot Gasol if Nene is occupied with Bynum.  For all the questions about his own toughness, Gasol remains one of the most effective big men in the game.  He can knock down shots from mid-range, screen and roll, post up or pound the offensive glass, and his passing vision is excellent.  He should prove too much for Martin or Nene, and I'm not sure the Birdman is strong enough to stop him.  The Lakers also ranked third in the league in the regular season and currently rank third in the postseason in offensive rebound rate, while the Nuggets sat 23rd in defensive rebound rate.  Expect the Lakers to create and convert on second chances throughout the series.

As for the swing spots, Carmelo Anthony has done a better job of playing defense and avoiding off-court trouble than I expected coming into the year, and his offensive talents need no introduction.  But neither do those of the scoring star on the other side.  Kobe Bryant still has the edge on Anthony at both ends of the floor, and the Lakers also get the nod on the secondary swing player likely to guard the other team's top scorer.  Trevor Ariza offered more scoring on higher efficiency than Dahntay Jones did during the season, and despite not demonstrating impressive three-point marksmanship over the breadth of his career, he has been off the charts in the playoffs: Ariza has hit 20 of 40 threes and is posting a 65.4 percent true shooting figure while averaging nearly 11 points per game.  Ariza and Jones are both capable defenders (Jones' cross-matching onto Chris Paul played a crucial role in the Nuggets' first-round win), but Ariza makes his man expend more energy at the other end of the floor.  Further, Bryant heads into this series knowing that his toughest individual offensive assignment is behind him.  No matter how well Jones performs, it's hard to imagine that he will be able to challenge Bryant the way fellow former Dukie Shane Battier does (and Battier has Ron Artest around to help him out these days).

Yes, the Lakers got a scare from a depleted Rockets team while the Nuggets cruised in the second round.  But I can think of another top seed in recent memory that had to win a couple of early-round seventh games, and that one turned out no worse for the wear in later stages of the playoffs.  The Nuggets have had a fine season and have the tools to make this a great series.  But they are also outmatched at the swing spots, on the front line and - even if some say Phil Jackson shows signs of losing his touch - in the coach's box. 

The Lakers will prove to be a bit too much.

The pick: Lakers in six

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