The Los Angeles Lakers changed coaches during the offseason, got rid of one of their prized big men, and have become more defensive-minded than in recent years. The Denver Nuggets, meanwhile, still with George Karl, continue to play free-wheeling offense in the mile-high altitude and continue to have tremendous success. Two of the favorites to win the Western Conference will face off on cable television Friday night when the Lakers head into the mountains to visit the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. This is the third of four meetings between these two, who split the first two contest, each winning at home (L.A., 92-89 Dec. 31; Denver, 99-90 Jan. 1). Here’s a look at my NBA picks for tonight’s game.
Los Angeles Lakers (13-9) @ Denver Nuggets (15-7), 10:30 p.m. ET
The Lakers are definitely improved defensively, ranking fifth in the league in points allowed (90.6 ppg) under first-year coach Mike Brown (formerly of Cleveland), but their mediocre offense (19 th at 93.6 ppg) has shown signs of life in consecutive wins over Minnesota (106-101) and Charlotte (106-73). Kobe Bryant is his prolific self, leading the league in scoring with 30 ppg and adding 5.4 assists per game, while Andrew Bynum (16.5 ppg, 12.1 rpg) is filling in well for the departed Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol (16.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) still providing quality support. This team is predicated on defense, and keeping Denver from running will be the likely factor in pulling off a win in this game. However, keep in mind that the Lakers are just 2-7 away from home this year.
Denver had hit a recent skid, dropping consecutive games to teams with winning records (vs. Clippers at home, at Memphis) after winning six straight games, but got back on track last night with a win at the Clippers. With scoring at a premium this year, Denver leads the league (105.4 ppg) and has scored at least 100 points 14 times in 22 games. Denver is 10-3 when it hits the century mark, but just 4-4 otherwise. This is a very balanced team, with six players averaging double-figure scoring, led by former Knick Danilo Gallinari (17.4 ppg) along with Ty Lawson (15.5 ppg). As with every Karl-coached team over the years (Bucks, Sonics, Nuggets), Denver will force tempo and make the other team defend and rebound.
The most recent NBA odds list the Nuggets as 4-point favorites, while the total is set for 196.5 points. Based on the results from the first two meetings between these teams, the squad that controls the pace of the game will likely be the victor. At home, the Lakers were able to keep Denver to fewer than 90 points; in Denver, the Lakers scored about the same, but the Nuggets scored nearly 100 points. At home, Denver is awfully tough to beat, much less stop offensively. Plus, Denver likely views the Lakers as a team by which to measure their legitimacy in the Western Conference. This game comes down to who has more discipline and the stronger will to dictate pace. At home, it’s hard to go against the Nuggets. Denver will be tired after playing the Clippers in L.A. Thursday night, but the depth should help them run just enough to score 96 to 98 points and earn a hard-fought win.
Final Score Prediction: Nuggets 98, Lakers 92