With another impressive victory on the road in Dallas on Sunday, the Lakers (28-29) have fought their way back within a single game of the .500 mark since Dec. 28, 2012. More importantly, they are now within 2 and a half games behind the 8th seed Rockets in the west. But the Lakers don't have time to celebrate their 3rd-straight win yesterday. They'll head to a place where it's hard to win as the visiting team.
The Pepsi Center has been one of those arenas in the NBA that vividly reminds the Lakers that they're not at Staples Center. Since its completion on Oct. 1999, the Lakers are 10-15 in the regular season. In fact, the purple and gold have not beaten the Denver Nuggets (35-22) in this building since Game 4 of the opening round of the 2012 NBA playoffs. It's not something the Lakers would like to reminisce, especially tonight.
Despite winning 11 of their 15 games (including 4 of the last 7 games away from home) since their 4-game losing streak in January, the Lakers have to continue to gather wins in order to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Including tonight, there are only 25 games left in the season. Twelve of those are on the road. If the Lakers are to need at least 45 wins to get the 8th spot, they can't finish the regular season any worse than a 17-8 record.
It's a tall order to beat the Nuggets tonight, who are looking for their 9th-straight win at home, but not impossible. And if the Lakers are to fly back to Los Angeles with the victory, they will have to follow Kobe Bryant's lead yet again.
In the first 3 games against Denver, Kobe is averaging 27.7 points on 44.6% shooting and 7 assists. But since the first game of the 2nd half of the season, Bryant has become a different animal on the floor. He has learned to balance his scoring and facilitating his teammates. Because of it, opposing teams are finding it hard to double-team him which gives him the freedom to pick-and-choose how he wants to score and where. The result? A 31.3 points per game average on 52.5% clip.
The Nuggets might not have their leading scorer available tonight. Danillo Gallinari has a bruised thigh and is questionnable for tonight's game. Gallinari is averaging 16.9 points per game this season. However, the Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the league who can surely compensate for Gallinari's absence.
Ty Lawson and Andre Igoudala have been problems for many teams all season long. Lawson has been averaging 15.7 points and 9.7 assists against the Lakers this year. But in the last 10 games, he's getting 22.7 points and 8.7 assists per. Igoudala seems to save his best for the purple and gold. For the year, he's averaging just 13.1 points and 5.3 rebounds. Versus L.A., he's up to 15.3 points and 6 assists an outing.
From there, you have JaVale McGee (10 PPG/4.8 RPG/1.9 BPG), Corey Brewer (11.4 PPG) — who always look like a superstar against the Lakers, Andre Miller (9.1 PPG/5.8 APG) — who the Lakers can't seem to stop despite having a half-inch vertical on his iffy jumpshots, and of course, Kenneth Faried (12.1 PPG/9.6 RPG).
Unlike the Mavericks, the Lakers are facing a younger, more athletic team that still believes they are the better team. But the Lakers have been playing like they understand what's at stake now that there's only 2 full months of the regular season left and with the team still outside looking in.
Tonight is the 4th and final meeting of the season between these 2 teams with the Lakers trying the even the season series at 2-2.
Matchup of the Game
Steve Nash vs. Ty Lawson: Despite no longer the traditional point guard for the Lakers, Nash has shot well as the pseudo off-guard. The Lakers will need him to, not only make his shots, but to help relieve Bryant some of his ball-handling responsibilities. The Nuggets have done a good job at forcing Kobe to be a volume shooter this year. He scored 40 points on 13-of-24 shooting the last time the Lakers were in town, but that didn't exactly translate into a W for the purple and gold. However, we might see the same Bryant as Sunday who will find a way to score as well as feed his teammates. But the game will go a lot smoother for the Lakers if Nash can share some of the passing load since that will make the Laker offense less predictable.
Keys to the Game
> Rebounds: The Nuggets rank 2nd in the league in attacking the boards. They average 45.2 rebounds per game with 13.5 of those coming on the offensive end. So, the Lakers can't rely soley on Dwight Howard to get to those missed shots. This is gonna have to be another team effort tonight.
> Defense: Denver is 3rd in the NBA in scoring getting 105.2 points a game. They also rank 5th in shooting efficiency averaging 47.2% from the field. A lot of those shots come from fast breaks and dribble penetrations. The best way to prevent that is take care of the ball and to have an active, physical defense.
> Dwight Howard: He wasn't much of a factor in the last game at the Pepsi Center having only 12 points, 7 rebounds and 1 block. That can't happen again tonight if the Lakers are to get their 4th-win in a row. Both Kobe and Nash have to find him early and often on offense so his defense will be there for the Lakers the entire game.
Watch Out For
LAKERS: Metta World Peace: Regardless of what a lot of Laker fans think of him, MWP is right up there with Kobe when it comes to sensing the importance of winning games. His physical defense on Dirk Nowitzki on Sunday was one of the reasons why the Lakers avoided what would have been a huge loss down the stretch. He might not ignore shooting the ball tonight, but look for him to put on another solid defensive outing.
NUGGETS: Corey Brewer: As I said earlier, the Lakers have been making a superstar out of him this season. Brewer is averaging 11.4 points for the year but 16.3 points versus the Lakers, including a team-high 27-point performance in Denver back in December. The Lakers lost that game 126-114. I'd say Brewer was the difference in that one.
@ Denver Nuggets
Tip-off: 6:00 p.m. (PST)
TV: TWC SportsNet (Southern California)
Radio: 710 AM ESPN/1330 KWKW
LAKERS: Pau Gasol (foot) and Jordan Hill (hip) are both out.
NUGGETS: Danilo Gallinari (thigh) could be game-time decision.