Before you start paying too much attention to what the Los Angeles Lakers did against the short-handed Houston Rockets, ask yourself two questions:
1. Has there ever been a seven game series in NBA Playoff history where the better team didn’t win?
2. Who’s more talented, the Lakers or the Denver Nuggets?
In trying to answer question No. 1, the only time I could possibly think of when the better team didn’t take a seven-gamer was when the Warriors shocked the Mavericks in the first round in 2007. Then after thinking about it for about 30 seconds, I realized even that was a ridiculous statement. The Warriors were the hottest team on the planet when they met Dallas, Baron Davis was playing like a Top-3 point guard, their bench was superior to Dallas’ and Don Nelson knew exactly how to defeat his former team.
Also, the 2006/07 Mavs were a fraudulent bunch, a soft team who could score at will during the regular season but had no chance when the other team played with focus and physicality (in other words, they were the NBA’s version of the San Jose Sharks…sorry, had to do it).
As for the second question, even George Karl would admit that his team isn’t as skilled as the Lakers and that he’ll need to play dirty/physical to have any chance of winning. Let’s face it, Chris Anderson plays huge minutes for the Nuggets. I know he blocks a lot of shots, did a lot of drugs and puts lots of product in his hair, but Anderson would play about 5 more minutes than Josh Powell per game if he were a Laker.
I’d be worried for the Lakers if Lamar Odom was still hobbled by the back injury he sustained running into Shane Battier, but he was all over the place during Sunday’s Game 7 against the Rockets. By the way, that game once again proved that the Lakers can get away with mailing in a game or two (or three), since they’re the most talented team in the Western Conference and hold homecourt advantage until the Finals. It’s a maddening thought, and it ruins the NBA for some people, but it’s true — in the NBA playoffs, playing hard every night isn’t always necessary.
One week into the first round, I mentioned how the Rockets were the only team with any shot of derailing the NBA’s hopes of a Lakers/Cavaliers series (not to mention Nike, whose stock price pretty much depends on LeBron and Kobe’s exploits over the next three years). Even with Yao healthy the Rockets aren’t as talented or deep as the Nuggets, but from watching every Lakers/Rockets game during the regular season, there were several obvious concerns for the Lakers: the Rockets have speedy point guards, two guys who have traditionally given Kobe trouble in Battier and Ron Artest and a glut of scrappy power forwards.
The Nuggets have a better point guard, but he’s hardly quick. Nobody on the Nuggets can keep Kobe from scoring 40 if he really wants to, unless J.R. Smith has an out-of-body experience and suddenly becomes Tayshaun Prince. Kenyon Martin’s great at intimidating emotionally fragile teams like the Hornets and Mavs, but he’s nowhere near as skilled as Luis Scola around the basket. It’s not that Pau Gasol is quite as soft as people say, he just gets easily discouraged when players score on him down low. Gasol can take an elbow, but he nearly comes to tears every time someone gets him on an up-and-under move, something Martin certainly doesn’t have in his arsenal.
Also, while Mark Cuban made himself look like a bully, a psycho and a wuss at the same time with the whole “K-Mart’s mom fiasco,” he did make sure the referees place a little more attention on Martin than what would have otherwise been the case. It was too late in the series for Dallas to take advantage of this, but trust me — with Lakers/Cavs on the horizon the NBA is not going to allow Denver or Orlando to get away with any elbows or excessive jersey-pulling.
Of course, if the Lakers lose tonight, disregard this entire post up to this point. This is the most important playoffs of Bryant’s career; if the Cavaliers cruise to the title this year against either the Nuggets or Lakers, LeBron’s probably going to start winning titles until someone convinces him he should take a sabbatical and try to make the Cleveland Indians.
The Lakers have homecourt and a roster fully capable of defeating Denver, but if the Nuggets steal Game 1 like the Rockets did, the confidence Denver gained from beating New Orleans and Dallas so handily might rush over the Lakers like a tsunami. Phil Jackson knows this, so don’t expect a lollychoking effort tonight like the Lakers put forth in the series opener against Houston.
Series Prediction (just for the hell of it): Lakers in Seven.