Tonight's Lakers-Nuggets Game: An Early Look at the Postseason's Battle Western Superiority

If you've got a case of the late-season NBA doldrums, tonight's Nuggets-Lakers tilt is the cure. Not to put too many eggs in one night of broadcasting or anything, but this just might decide the Western Conference Finals -- on two levels. ↵
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↵For one, there's the increasingly likely return of Andrew Bynum, who supposedly looks brand new and might even start. Run that through your head again: The consensus toast of the West, a team that might not have any true competition (more on that later), is getting back a young seven-footer who, at the time of his injury, had just begun to string together monster games at a rate befitting the hype surrounding him. Bynum's got some time (read: until the Western Finals) to get back into game shape, but even as a role player, he's a huge asset. ↵
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↵Or is he? Much was made earlier this season of the problems Phil had figuring out what to do with Bynum, Gasol, and Odom. I wish they could all start together, but they can't; despite Odom's versatility and perimeter skills, he does like to work around the basket a lot, which between Gasol's preferred area of activity and the large shadow Bynum casts, doesn't leave enough space for the triangle to get flowing. A shame, since Odom and Gasol's passing skills work so well together -- then again, Luke Walton's no slouch.
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↵The problem, though, is that Odom was a mess coming off the bench, whereas now he's something like a star. This might be one of the toughest challenges P-Jax has had to face in years, since it mixes psychological management with executive management strategy. And motivation. ↵
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↵But while this is going on, the Nuggets are riding an eight-game winning streak. After the Spurs' loss of Manu and subsequent home loss to Portland when it mattered, the Nuggets are looking like the only team that has a prayer of challenging the Lakers. Yeah, I know all about the Rockets, but the Lakers just seem capable of throwing too much at them, and if Bynum's around, have too much to impede them with. Denver, on the other hand, is a tough defensive team masking the same explosive offensive machine of old. That dichotomy isn't only sneaky, it's dangerous. Bynum makes it tougher, but I could see them giving the Lakers serious problems -- but only if the Nuggets are as on as they've been lately. ↵
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↵So watch to see what's happening with Bynum individually, Bynum and the team dynamic, and the effect Denver has on the Lakers. It's worth noting that Kobe has historically beaten the living crap out of Denver, but also that Carmelo Anthony -- a bit banged-up -- has been relatively quiet this season when it comes to that whole "superstar scorer" thing. For the Nuggets to seriously challenge LA, they need to bring a multi-faceted approach. And most definitely, Anthony and J.R. Smith getting aggressive on offense is something George Karl will need at his disposal. ↵
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↵You know what, I just typed "George Karl." I retract this all. But the game should still be fun. ↵

↵Update: According to thePress-Enterprise, Odom's ready and willing to return to the bench. To backtrack: Not only do Gasol and Odom play well together, LO was useless as a sixth man. But now, with the second unit faltering, and Odom's confidence at an all-time high, the multi-purpose forward feels he can help bolster them: ↵

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↵⇥"Whatever's best for the team. The second unit struggled a little bit toward the end of the year, and I would definitely like to take that challenge on and get them going again." ↵
↵There's also the fact that Odom, whose contract is up this summer, has now proven just how valuable he is to the Lakers (or could be to another franchise). Hard to say whether his problems earlier in the year were motivated by business, ego, or both, but it looks like it might work out for everyone in the end. Awwwww.↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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