The Denver Nuggets may yet challenge the Lakers in their first round Western Conference playoff series.
But the theme in the press room at Staples Center Sunday, April 20 was that the Lakers have been both good and lucky in determining their playoff path.
It was the consensus of the media, scouts from various teams, and some other longtime NBA observers that the Lakers escaped a more dangerous route in their quest for a long playoff run.
Their 128-114 win over the Nuggets was a predictable outcome – the No. 1 seed defeating the No. 8 seed – but also quite predictable in the way the game was played. The Nuggets have talent but concentrate on offense. They try to outscore the opponent rather than clamping down on defense. And that plays right into the Lakers’ hands.
The Lakers deserve much credit for gaining the No. 1 seed, but also were fortunate to barely escape Dallas in the first round and Phoenix in the second. Both of those teams have more inside strength and play a style more likely to bother the Lakers, who are without injured center Andrew Bynum.
It is thought that big men such as Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki and Phoenix’ Shaquille O’Neal would provide a significant test for Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ new center who is an outstanding finesse player but not physically strong.
Against Denver Sunday Gasol roamed at will, producing 36 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists. He was so good that Kobe Bryant didn’t have to dominate. He came on strong in the second half after scoring only four points in the first.
But if the Lakers have been fortunate they’ve also developed beautifully as a team. Phil Jackson, in one of the better coaching jobs of his championship-laden career, has put in a system that encourages teamwork and the players have bought into it.
“They’re a very unselfish team and I was surprised by their movement,” said Denver center Marcus Camby.
“Our system allows Pau to use his various skills,” said Bryant. “He’s a center who doesn’t just go into the post every time.”
Dallas had to win a game on the final day of the regular season to avoid a first round series against the Lakers and Phoenix was strongly in the running to finish fourth or fifth, which would have put the Suns in the Lakers’ bracket, with a second round matchup likely.
Instead, Phoenix came in sixth and has to oppose defending NBA champion San Antonio, the No. 3 seed, in the first round. The survivor will play the Dallas-New Orleans winner next and the Lakers will avoid all four of those fine teams until one reaches the Western Finals. Instead, the Lakers will play the Houston-Utah winner next, hardly a soft touch but not considered by most experts as stringent a challenge.
The first game between San Antonio and Phoenix on Saturday, April 19, was a double overtime classic, with the Spurs overcoming a 16-point deficit to win by two.
If that was an example of how those teams are going to wear each other out, it further illustrates the level of competition the Lakers are initially avoiding.
Jack Ramsay, the former Hall of Fame coach who now does radio work for ESPN, was courtside in San Antonio and commented it was the greatest game he’s ever broadcasted.
And that was just the first game of a tournament scheduled to last for two months.
If Denver and the Houston-Utah winner provide the Lakers with only moderately difficult opposition, as many expect, it will essentially reduce the Lakers’ task from four tough rounds to the last two.