- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It had been 20 days since Metta World Peace last slipped on his practice jersey with a game to play the next day.
Back on April 22, in the Los Angeles Lakers' penultimate game in the regular season, World Peace threw his left elbow and connected with the head of Oklahoma City's James Harden. The mercurial forward hasn't had a game to look forward to since.
After serving the seven-game suspension levied by the NBA for the Harden hit, World Peace is set to return for Game 7 of the Lakers' first-round series against the Denver Nuggets.
As his team is teetering, having lost two in a row and three of the past four against the Nuggets to tie the series at 3-3, World Peace did not want his return to the lineup to throw the Lakers off any more.
"(Saturday) is more about, kind of like all bets are off," World Peace said before the Lakers practiced on Friday. "All in. Whatever we have to do as a team. It's not about what I can and what I can't do. It's about really what I'm going to do."
World Peace struggled for the bulk of his 13th season, averaging career lows in points (7.7 per game) while shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and 29.6 percent on 3-pointers, but had been experiencing a resurgence prior to his suspension. In 13 games in April, World Peace had upped those averages to 14.1 points on 47.3 percent shooting.
The Lakers could use his help in all aspects of the game right about now. The Lakers' defense was porous in Games 5 and 6, allowing Denver to score a total of 225 points. The Lakers' offense was lacking over the past two games as well, as they shot just 40.5 percent (70 for 173) as a team. And the Lakers' intensity in two straight potential close-out games? Well, outside of Kobe Bryant, it was pretty much nonexistent.
Bryant explicitly said that World Peace should help in the last category.
"I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he's known for," Bryant said after Game 6. "He's the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and play with no fear. So, I'm looking forward to having that by my side again."
In complimenting World Peace, Bryant was not-so-subtlety indicting Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Gasol had just 12 points and 13 rebounds in Games 5 and 6 combined, including a bottoming-out three-point, three-rebound night on Thursday in the Lakers' 113-96 loss to send the series back to L.A. for Game 7.
Bynum's numbers were better, putting up 27 points and 27 rebounds over the two losses, but was a shell of the player he was at the start of the series, when he followed up a triple-double in Game 1 with a career-playoff high 27 points in Game 2.
Gasol offered a deadpan response to Bryant's critique before Friday's practice.
"It was a comment," Gasol said. "It was an opinion. A lot of times opinions are determined by the timing of things. So, obviously, we all are happy to get Metta back (Saturday). Hopefully, he will be a big contributor. And I'm glad that Kobe relies on him that much."
Bryant backed off his statement a bit on Friday.
"My type of competitiveness and energy level is not something I expect every guy to have," Bryant said. "That's not to say that they don't have it; it's just that Metta's intensity is similar to my own. It's as simple as that."
Bynum said he had not spoken to Bryant yet prior to practice, but the message seemed to already have sunk in.
"I have to play like it's my last game," Bynum said. "Everybody needs to bring it. This is Game 7, so there are no more games to talk, there are no more games for adjustments. Either win or go home."
Lakers coach Mike Brown continued to stress the importance of Bynum and Gasol picking up their performance in Game 7.
"Whether it's fair or not, I just think (Bynum's) that good," Brown said. "If he wasn't that good, then I wouldn't ask that of him or expect it of him. Same with Pau. I think Pau is that good. We got two bigs that are very, very talented bigs and they can impact the game in a lot of different ways."
While no player on the Nuggets roster has been part of a Game 7, the Lakers have plenty of experience in the NBA's ultimate winner-take-all contest.
World Peace, Gasol, Bynum and Bryant banded together to beat Boston in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals and Bryant is 4-1 in Game 7's in his 16-year career. Brown coached two Game 7's with Cleveland as well, going 0-2.
"They're fun," Bryant said. "They're fun games. Every possession counts even more so. There's a lot of energy in the building and teams play with a sense of desperation on every single possession. It's a fun game to be a part of."
For World Peace, it will be fun just to be back out on the court.
"Every series is seven games," World Peace said. "That's just the reality of the NBA playoffs. That's why it's so exciting. It's exciting, seven games. It's just a part of the playoffs. That's why NBA is entertainment. Seven games is entertainment for the people. For us, we just go out there and play and do what we got to do."
After serving the suspension levied by the NBA for the James Harden hit, Metta World Peace is set to return for Game 7 of the Lakers' first-round series against the Nuggets.