Lakers' concern vs. Nuggets: Tempo
The Nuggets had the second-fastest pace in the NBA in the regular season, averaging 96.6 possessions per game. The Lakers, by contrast, averaged only 92.9 possessions per game, 20th in the league.
"We have to control the tempo," Bryant said after the Lakers' 113-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Thursday in the regular-season finale. The Lakers, seeded third in the West, will host the sixth-seeded Nuggets starting with Game 1 on Sunday at Staples Center. "They're going to get up and down, they're going to try to speed the game up and go to a smaller lineup, so on and so forth. We got to do a great job controlling the pace."
The Nuggets led the league in scoring with a 103.7-points-per-game average and were third in offensive efficiency, averaging 106.1 points per 100 possessions. Denver also was No. 1 in the league in fast-break points, averaging 19.9 points per game. "We got to get back in transition defense," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "I think that's a strength of theirs so we have to make sure that we get back and we don't allow them any easy baskets."
The Lakers will look to exploit their size with their twin 7-footers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Denver has a trio of 7-footers in JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mosgov, but none of them have the combination of size and strength that Bynum and Gasol do. Rookie Kenneth Faried starts at power forward and, while extremely athletic, measures just 6-8, 228 pounds.
Gasol, Bynum and Bryant all were given Thursday night off against the Kings to rest, meaning the trio will not have played a game for a full week leading up to the playoff opener.
"It gives us an opportunity to be healthy," Bryant said. "I feel great because of the seven games I had off [due to injury], and this week is going to do wonders for Pau and Drew."
The Lakers' fresh legs will help because Denver also has a clear advantage in terms of depth. The Nuggets' bench ranked second in the league in scoring, averaging 41.4 points per game, led by Sixth Man of the Year candidate Al Harrington. The Lakers' bench mustered barely half of that, averaging 21 points per game, ranking dead last in the league.
"They got a very deep and talented roster," Brown said. "Those guys have done a nice job of assembling young talent and mixing in a savvy veteran or two here and there with [Arron] Afflalo and Andre Miller. So they've got a deep, deep roster, and everybody on the roster in some shape or form concerns me."
One key matchup will be point guard, where Ty Lawson, who leads Denver in scoring (16.4 points per game) and assists (6.6 per game) will face off against Ramon Sessions. It will be the first postseason experience in Sessions' five-year career.
"It's going to be exciting," Sessions said. "Young guard, quick, explosive. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a good challenge for me and it's going to be a challenge for him on the other end."
While Denver's depth and pace are a concern, on the flip side, the Nuggets were 29th in points allowed (101.23 per game) and were last in the league in 3-point defense, allowing their opponents to shoot a robust 38.4 percent from deep.
"I can say with an honest face that we don't really look at none of those teams [in the playoffs] as a threat," Sessions said. "If we come out and play like we play for 48 minutes, I think we're unstoppable."
The Lakers won three of the four regular-season matchups with Denver, the lone loss coming New Year's Day when Bryant shot just 6-for-28 in a 99-90 defeat.
Brown, who began his coaching career in Denver as an video assistant back in the early '90s, is familiar with the Denver altitude but downplayed the effect it can have on a visiting team.
"For an overweight guy like myself, I have a little trouble when I get up and down," Brown said with a laugh. "They're highly conditioned athletes. We have one of the best trainers in the world in Gary Vitti. I don't think the altitude effects them like it does me, and [assistant coach] Chuck [Person] and [assistant coach] Darvin [Ham]."
Several players on the Lakers have some familiarity with Denver as well, after eliminating George Karl's Nuggets from the postseason in the first round in 2008 and the conference finals in 2009.
"We'll be able to communicate a great deal, obviously, myself and Mike Brown," Bryant said. "Having played a George Karl team in the playoffs a couple years, we had some pretty good series against them and we have a great deal of experience in terms of matching up with them defensively, understanding what they try to do against us versus our individual players. So, we'll be in constant communication."