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Things to Do in Denver When Your Season's Almost Dead

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When I first looked at the schedule for this week and saw that the Lakers were playing in Denver, I turned to my cat and said, "Dude, I hope they don't get blown out." That's not a flattering indicator of where the Lakers' title defense stands right now. But seriously, can you blame me? Three of the team's last six games have been losses by 16 or more points. Their loss in New Orleans by "only" eight, in which the Lakers trailed by 14 heading into the fourth quarter, was actually one of their better performances in this stretch. Blowout-avoidance, at the moment, is the top priority.

There's nothing the Nuggets and their fans enjoy more than laying spectacular beatdowns on the purple and gold. Back in mid-November the two teams faced off in Denver, with the Nuggets winning in a 26-point rout. That game was one of the earliest warning signs that something was amiss with this Lakers team. Then the Nuggets visited Staples in early November and won by 13. Later that month the Lakers eked out a victory over Denver at home, but only after trailing late in the fourth period.

After tussling with the Nuggets tonight, the Lakers fly to exotic Minneapolis to play the Timberwolves tomorrow. The Wolves have won twice in their last 27 games. Twice. In 27 games. If they Lakers lose to these guys, collect your loved ones, empty your bank accounts and head for a place of safety. Travel lightly, taking only what you need. We'll all find each other again, somehow, once human civilization is rebuilt.

Wondah put it well the other day when he asked, "What is this team [meaning the Lakers] especially good at right now?" It's not an easy question to answer. Since the All-Star break, the edifice of the Lakers' team identity has crumbled. As constructed in the first half of the season, that structure had three load-bearing pillars: outstanding team defense, unmatched frontline height and athleticism, and the individual dominance of Kobe Bryant. None of those three things can be counted on anymore.

The Laker D, once so formidable, has been horrific lately. Over the last six games they've allowed opponents to score 1.13 points per possession. (An average NBA possession this year has been worth about 1.07 PPP.) The team's athletic and size advantage along the frontline has been drained by the absence of Andrew Bynum. No one knows when he'll be back.

As for Kobe, he's not himself these days. He's played through a half-dozen injuries, and done so well, but he's not superhumanly great as he's been in past years. Offensively, this will probably be his worst regular season in a decade. Phil Jackson has suggested that Kobe's still playing himself back into shape from his injury absence, but come on. He's been back for over six weeks now. His shooting numbers since returning (48% eFG, 55% True Shooting) are basically equal to his season totals. Until his finger heals in the offseason, this is just who he is.

Catching Up With the Nuggets

Denver's got a few problems of its own. Coach George Karl is away from the team indefinitely as he receives treatment for cancer, with onetime Laker Adrian Dantley coaching the team in his absence. In late March the Nuggets dropped five of six - I haven't been tracking them closely enough to know how much having to play without Karl contributed to the skid, though I assume it was a factor - but they've bounced back nicely in April to win three straight and stay in contention for the West's two seed. One of those three wins happened last night in Oklahoma City, so the Lakers should have the fresher legs this evening.

Also on the list of issues facing the Nuggets right now is increasingly poor frontline depth. Kenyon Martin is out with an injured knee, depriving Denver of one of its few good rebounders. Chris Andersen hasn't played since April 1st because of an injured knee and is expected to be a gametime decision. Nene is healthy and awesome, but beyond him they're giving more minutes to lesser eminences Johan Petro and Malik Allen than the Surgeon General recommends. This presents a good opportunity for the Lakers to do work on the offensive glass.

The Nugget guards always cause problems for the Lake Show. Somehow Chauncey Billups and Ty Lawson need to be kept out of the lane, and Arron Afflalo and J.R. Smith have to be minded beyond the arc. Ron Artest needs to lock down Carmelo Anthony, as he did at Staples in late February. And Pau Gasol can't get bullied by Nene. It should be an interesting game, and by "interesting" I mean "possibly fun and possibly totes gruesome."

Catching Up With the Timberwolves

Speaking of gruesomeness, here are the NBA's foremost authorities on the topic. Now that the New Jersey Nets have scraped a few wins out of the dumpster, people seem to agree that the Timberwolves have taken over the mantle of the league's worst team. They're a decent rebounding squad, and that's it. That's their list of strengths. They're awful at literally everything else you need to do to win basketball games. They just lost at home to the Warriors, one of only seven road contests Golden State has won all year. I would say, "Sorry, Kurt Rambis," but he's not exactly blameless in this situation.

In terms of scouting Friday night's game, let's not overthink this. The Lakers have massive advantages in talent, coaching and motivation. The Timberwolves want this season to be over. Their fans want this season to be over. Yeah, that Denver-to-Minneapolis flight isn't a short one, but who cares. These are the Timberwolves. Regardless of what happens in Colorado tonight, a loss in Minnesota would be a giant loogie hocked in the faces of Laker fans everywhere.

Lakers

Nuggets

Timberwolves

RECORD

55-22 (2)

51-27 (4)

15-63 (29)

NET POINTS PER GAME

+5.1 (4)

+4.5 (7)

-9.3 (29)

PACE

93.0 (14)

94.8 (5)

96.1 (3)

OFFENSIVE RATING

108.9 (10)

112.1 (2)

101.6 (29)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.5% (5)

12.9% (9)

14.5% (27)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.29 (18)

0.38 (1)

0.28 (25)

Free-Throw %

76.5 (12)

77.4 (9)

74.4 (22)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.23 (12)

0.22 (13)

0.17 (28)

3PT% (Off.)

34.2 (22)

35.8 (11)

33.8 (25)

Effective FG% (Off.)

49.8 (15)

51.1 (9)

47.7 (27)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.0 (15)

56.3 (6)

51.7 (27)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.4% (11)

26.3% (19)

26.9% (13)

DEFENSIVE RATING

103.4 (5)

107.4 (16)

111.2 (28)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

13.3% (18)

13.8% (9)

13.0% (21)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.26 (2)

0.32 (23)

0.28 (11)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.23 (21)

0.22 (16)

0.24 (26)

3PT% (Def.)

32.5 (1)

34.9 (13)

36.4 (25)

Effective FG% (Def.)

48.3 (6)

49.6 (14)

52.2 (28)

True Shooting% (Def.)

52.1 (2)

54.3 (17)

56.2 (28)

Def Rebounding Rate

74.6% (8)

72.6% (24)

73.8% (13)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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