NBA Western Conference Finals preview

In one corner we have the team that played the best over the 82 game regular season in the Kobe Bryant led Los Angeles Lakers and in the other corner we have the team that has looked the best since the playoffs began in the Chauncey Billups led Denver Nuggets.  Both teams have reached this point on completely different terms with the Lakers getting pushed to the brink before dispatching a shorthanded Rockets squad while the Nuggets dispatched the talented Mavericks in convincing fashion.  Because we have short memories and live in a “what have you done for me lately” society some of the experts and fans alike have designated the Nuggets as the favorites in this series.  Don’t be fooled.  The Lakers didn’t luck their way to the best record in the western conference.  Basketball is a game of match ups and the Lakers plain and simple didn’t match up well with a tough defensive team that has a couple of top notch defensive options in Shane Battier and Ron Artest that they can throw at Kobe Bryant.  Denver does not have that option.  Guard Dahntay Jones is expected to get the start at shooting guard in this series and match up with Kobe Bryant.  This should pose a favorable match up as far as the Lakers are concerned and should allow Bryant to score with more ease than he did in the second round series against Houston. 

Both teams have solid players that can come off the bench and provide a spark.  Denvers bench is led by JR Smith who provides an offensive spark plug averaging 16.2 points per game during the playoffs and should provide a scoring boost.  Chris “Birdman” Andersen is averaging two blocked shots per game in the playoffs and will provide a defensive presence and front court depth.  Swingman Linas Kleiza is also capable of providing a scoring touch and has an outside shot that keeps defenses honest.  The Lakers bench is led by Lamar Odom who has been less than 100 percent since landing awkwardly on his back during game 4 of the Rockets series.  Odom is capable of scoring, rebounding and has been known to knock down an occasional shot or two from the outside.  Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown provided solid guard play last series and will be looking to do the same while Sasha Vujacic has range from behind the three point arc. 

The key for the Lakers will be the play of their front court and more specifically Andrew Bynum.  If he plays like he did in games 5 and 7 of the Rockets series then Denver will have a tough time matching up.  I look for the Lakers to get the ball in down low to their two seven footers in Bynum and Pau Gasol and let the two go to work and try and use their height advantage to get the Nuggets front court into foul trouble and force them to go to their bench.  A second key for the Lakers will be the defensive play of Trevor Ariza against Carmelo Anthony.  If Ariza can use his speed and quickness and force Anthony into bad shot selection or neutralize him as an offensive force then that will greatly increase the Lakers chances of reaching the NBA finals for the second time in as many years. 

The key for the Nuggets will be the play of Billups and how much he will be able to exploit the match up against Derek Fisher.  Denver has a distinct advantage at the point guard position with Billups playing as well right now as he’s ever been and that includes the Finals MVP performance that he had in 2004 against the Lakers that included Derek Fisher as his point guard adversary.   I look for Billups to do what Rockets guard Aaron Brooks did and drive the basketball and look to take advantage of his speed.  Another key for Denver will be the play of emerging center Nene.  If he can get Bynum into early foul trouble and get him out of his game then this will force the Lakers into sliding the less physical Gasol to center and force the still recovering Odom to play more minutes. 

My prediction:  Lakers in 6

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