A closer look inside the Nuggets-Lakers first-round matchup

The last time the Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers collided in the playoffs, a trip to the 2009 NBA Finals was at stake.

The Lakers prevailed in six games and went on to win the NBA title.

Three years later, Chris Andersen is the lone player remaining from Denver’s 2008-09 roster, but the new-look Nuggets enter the 2012 Western Conference playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.

The Nuggets won 11 of their final 15 games to end the season and are playing with confidence heading into their first-round playoff series against the Lakers.

“I feel we've established ourselves as a team that, if we play to our A-game, we can beat people,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Now we just have to go out and prove it.”

When the Nuggets and Lakers meet, it typically is a battle of speed vs. size – and size prevailed during the regular season as Los Angeles won three of the four meetings. With three 7-footers, Denver can play big, but Karl likely will try to turn up the tempo and run past Lakers big men Andre Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Here is an in-depth look at what promises to be an intriguing first-round matchup between the third-seeded Lakers and the No. 6 seed Nuggets.

The Breakdown: Described by their coach as the “Odd Couple,” Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson and shooting guard Arron Afflalo are clicking as well as any 1-2 combo in the NBA. Lawson averaged 21.6 points and 5.7 assists while shooting .583 from three-point range in Denver’s final seven games. Afflalo, the Nuggets’ most consistent scorer after the All-Star break, averaged 17.9 points during that same stretch as Denver went 6-1. Lawson’s speed will be an issue for the Lakers, but Afflalo will have his hands full on the defensive end as he tries to slow Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant. The Nuggets did a good job against Bryant during the regular season, limiting him to 17.7 points on 19-for-69 shooting in three games. Denver would love to see that trend continue in the playoffs.

The Breakdown: With one emotional outburst, Lakers forward Metta World Peace altered his team’s starting lineup and subsequent postseason playing rotation. World Peace received a seven-game suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City swingman James Harden, and he is ineligible to play the first six games of the playoffs. This is good news for Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari, who is starting to find his rhythm after missing 10 games with a broken left thumb. He has scored at least 10 points in eight of 10 games since his return and the Nuggets are 8-0 in those games. World Peace is a big, physical defender capable of shutting down an opponent, but the Lakers now will turn to Matt Barnes or Devin Ebanks. At power forward, Los Angeles still boasts four-time All-Star Pau Gasol, while Denver will counter with high-energy rookie Kenneth Faried.

The Breakdown: Early in the season, Karl compared 7-foot, 285-pound Lakers center Andrew Bynum to a Redwood tree. “When I saw Bynum the other night, I said, ‘Wow, they make players like that?’ ” Karl said. “It reminds me of the first time I saw Wilt Chamberlain.” Bynum certainly had his way with the Nuggets, averaging 24.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while shooting .661 from the field in four games. Nuggets center Kosta Koufos will get the initial assignment against Bynum, with the primary goal being to prevent him from catching the ball anywhere near the rim. Fellow 7-footers JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov also will have their opportunity. Karl would prefer to play Bynum straight-up defensively and avoid leaving shooters open on the perimeter by double-teaming in the low post.

The Breakdown: As an unheralded group that often gave the starters fits during practice, the Nuggets’ reserves took to calling themselves the “Have Nots.” Led by NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate Al Harrington and fellow veteran Andre Miller, the Denver bench ranked second in the NBA at 41.6 points per game. Along with Harrington and Miller, the second unit for the playoffs likely will feature long-armed defensive specialist Corey Brewer, McGee and Mozgov. For the Lakers, the absence of World Peace will have a ripple effect on coach Mike Brown’s bench rotation. If young big men Ebanks and Jordan Hill pick up more of those minutes, they could become wild-cards in the series. In the backcourt, veteran point guard Steve Blake provides a steady hand to run the L.A. offense.

The Breakdown: Forced to use 23 starting lineup combinations, Karl received little national attention for keeping Denver moving in the right direction despite numerous injuries and a trade-deadline deal that sent big man Nene to Washington. Karl now has 1,074 regular-season victories, while his 21 playoff appearances are the most among active NBA coaches. Karl will match wits with Brown, who did a commendable job in his first year after replacing Phil Jackson on the Lakers bench. Brown helped guide the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals, and his .592 winning percentage in the playoffs ranks 10th in NBA history.

Denver's late-season momentum and the absence of World Peace prove to be the difference in a 4-2 series win for the Nuggets.

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...