The Los Angeles Lakers face the Denver Nugges tonight at Staples Center, and Kobe Bryant will once again not be available. Prior to the demolition of the San Antonio Spurs, those facts alone might make you think the Lakers were in for an uphill battle against the Nuggets, but with Andrew Bynum setting a brand new precedent for defensive effectiveness, the Lakers have now shown that they are capable of winning against anybody, regardless of the Mamba's involvement. Accordingly, a win against a somewhat lesser team like the Denver Nuggets, especially at home, becomes somewhat of an expectation.
The Nuggets, however, need wins. They are currently fighting for their playoff lives. At 32-26, they find themselves smack dab in the middle of razor thin fight for Western Conference Playoff position. Two straight wins could see them go as high as 5th in the conference. Two straight losses could find them on the outside looking in. With the crazy bunching of the bottom half of the WC bracket, they need every win they can get, and you can count on that desperation being evident in their play. The Lakers position is not quite so volatile, but they cannot afford to show the Nuggets any mercy.
The Lakers are in a dog-fight with their cross-hallway foes, the LA Clippers, for the 3rd seed and Pacific Division Crown, but that's pretty much the only question left. It's highly unlikely they could catch the Spurs (or Thunder) for the 2 seed, and not very likely they could fall as far as the 5th seed either. Their season boils down to that 3 or 4, and they have pole position down the stretch. This means they have (slightly) less direct motivation to bring the energy for tonight's contest, and the Lakers are well known for their willingness to give in to the demons of complacency, especially after a big win like Wednesday night's.
Tonight will be the Lakers' first look this season at some interesting developments with the Nuggets' squad. Wilson Chandler is back in the fray, but he's been really poor so far this season, and is unlikely to go tonight with a strained groin. The other new face is JaVale McGee, and his presence on the Nuggets is nothing short of shocking. While Lakers fans were celebrating Ramon Sessions and sobbing about Derek Fisher, the Nuggets and Washington Wizards agreed to the most bizarre trade of all, in packaging the hilariously foolish McGee to Denver and sending Nene to Washington. The trade, well, it confused everybody.
Regardless, McGee is now a Nugget, and he's done OK in Denver, but Andrew Bynum should destroy him easily. Bynum is nearly twice McGee's size, and nobody on Denver's roster has the size to stop him if he's game. Gasol will be dealing with a couple of high energy types in Birdman and Kenneth Faried, so he'll need to keep his focus on staying after it and not getting outworked too badly on the boards, but offensively, he should be able to get just about whatever he wants as well. And this will be our first experience of seeing the Lakers try to defend Ty Lawson without worrying about throwing out old "Concrete Shoes" as a starting point guard. Speed, meet speed.
Win or lose, all we can really hope for is that the Lakers come into tonight with the fire of a team that isn't too satisfied with themselves after pulling off one of those legacy games. Focus is not necessarily a quality I'd list as a strength for the home team, but tonight is an opportunity for them to prove me wrong. Here's hoping they take it.