Healthy and focused, Nuggets ready to take on the Lakers
Denver and Los Angeles open playoff series Sunday
LOS ANGELES – In 2010, the Denver Nuggets went through the playoffs without coach George Karl as he battled cancer.
In 2011, they played their first two postseason games without starting guard Arron Afflalo as he recovered from a strained hamstring.
In 2012, they are poised to see how far they can go with good health finally on their side.
With few people giving them much of a chance to advance out of the first round, the Nuggets went through final preparations Saturday in advance of their Western Conference playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Game 1 is Sunday at Staples Center.
“This is all we’ve been playing for the whole season and working hard our whole lives for this opportunity,” Denver guard Ty Lawson said. “I think everybody’s ready. I’m ready for this opportunity.”
The Nuggets (38-28) won six of their final seven games to secure the No. 6 seed in the West. Despite finishing just three games behind the third-seeded Lakers (41-25), they remain clear underdogs in the series.
“I don’t think the experts picked us to make the playoffs this year, either,” Karl said. “I don’t think the experts ever thought that when we made all the (roster) changes we were ever going to play at a great rhythm at the end of the season.”
The Lakers won three of the four meetings during the regular-season, but all three victories were by six points or less. The Nuggets averaged 93.5 points in the four games, more than 10 points below their season average of 104.1.
“If we play at our pace, you would think that would be to our advantage,” Afflalo said. “If they find a way to play at their pace and execute the things they want to execute, it could work in their favor. Hopefully, for the most part within the series, we can do the things we want to do.”
Testing the legs of Lakers big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is among Denver’s top priorities. On missed baskets and made baskets, the Nuggets will try to run in an attempt to negate L.A.’s size advantage.
Karl even joked with his coaching staff about using hockey shifts to keep his big men fresh.
“I know Bynum and Gasol don’t want to run, run, run, run, run for 48 minutes,” Karl said. “Over the course of the game, we need seven to 10 hoops because our bigs are going to run.”
The Nuggets also are hoping to take advantage of the absence of Lakers forward Metta World Peace, who has six games remaining on a seven-game suspension for throwing an elbow at Oklahoma City swingman James Harden.
World Peace is a physical player who can guard nearly every position on the court and is particularly tough in end-of-game situations. Veteran small forward Matt Barnes likely will get the bulk of the minutes in the absence of World Peace.
“I’m not saying it’s a positive or a negative,” Afflalo said. “He’s one of their main players and a huge defensive presence and a guy with a lot of playoff experience. From that standpoint, it could hurt them.”
If the Nuggets can take advantage of L.A.’s lack of depth and keep the tempo in their favor, they have an excellent chance to steal a road game and disappoint Academy Award-winning actor Jack Nicholson, who sits courtside near the opposing bench.
“Jack will be fun,” Karl said. “He’s always been very nice to me, generally. I think he thinks I’m a good coach. He’s always been friendly. I hope I make him very unhappy.”