LAKERS VS. NUGGETS GAME PREVIEW
By NOEY KUPCHAN, STATS Writer
The surging Los Angeles Lakers suddenly find themselves very much within reach of the top spot in the Western Conference thanks in part to a season-best winning streak.
The Denver Nuggets also continue to thrive during a five-game run.
As Los Angeles tries to gain ground in the race for first place in the West, the Nuggets will look to clinch a postseason berth when the teams meet Sunday at Staples Center.
The Lakers (55-20) entered All-Star weekend on a three-game losing streak and sat in third place in the conference - 8 1/2 games behind first-place San Antonio.
Los Angeles, though, improved to 17-1 since the All-Star break and extended the longest active run in the league to nine games with a 96-85 victory at Utah on Friday night.
That win, along with the Spurs' sixth straight loss, moved the two-time defending champions within 1 1/2 games of San Antonio for the conference lead.
"We want to win each game," said Kobe Bryant, averaging 31.6 points over his last five. "We're playing really well and we want to try and keep it going and see where we end up."
The Lakers have stepped up defensively during their winning streak, holding opponents to 93.9 points per game on 43.3 percent shooting. They have won their last four games by an average of 17.0 points.
The Nuggets (46-29), averaging an NBA-best 107.5 points, have also used an impressive defensive effort en route to recording five straight wins.
Denver has limited opponents to 95.2 points per contest - 7.5 fewer than its season mark - on 42.1 percent shooting during its run.
Coach George Karl's team improved to 14-4 since tradingCarmelo Anthony to New York and 13-2 when holding opponents to 90 points or fewer with a 99-90 victory at Sacramento on Friday night.
"We're ready for the playoffs right now," said guard Raymond Felton,acquired in the Anthony deal. "… I think mentally and physically we're ready to go."
The Nuggets, who are one win or a Houston loss away from clinching a berth, will get a taste of postseason competition with their upcoming schedule, which features two matchups with Oklahoma City and one with Dallas after Sunday.
"We get to play the next four games with some aggressiveness and pride," said Karl. "We've had a hell of a run. The next four games are playoff games in the regular season against great teams and we'll have to improve and find out how good we are."
The Lakers, playing for the second straight night Friday, trailed by as many as 17 points in the second quarter before cutting the lead to six at halftime and outscoring the Jazz 54-37 over the final two quarters.
"We've played very well (but) we can go out and have a stinker like we had in the first half and lose a ballgame," coach Phil Jackson said. "We may not have that energy in the second half to come back and win, and it's asking a lot of a team to continue at that pace.
"We want to do it and we have every urgency to do it, but the odds are against us. It's still a real tough thing to do."
Forward Matt Barnes was suspended for Friday's game after getting into an altercation with Jason Terryin Thursday night's 110-82 rout of the Mavericks. Barnes is expected to be available against Denver.
The Lakers have lost four of six overall to the Nuggets but have taken 13 of 15 in the series at home.
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