Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers need to keep winning when they travel to Colorado on Monday night to take on the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets, who currently hold the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoff race, have had an up-and-down season. They won nine straight games from Jan. 20 to Feb. 9, but have only managed two victories in their last six, both coming after the All-Star break.
If there ever was an opportune time for the Lakers to stroll into the Pepsi Center and steal a crucial victory, it is now.
Denver held off the Lakers in Colorado in the pair's first meeting there on Dec. 26. A lot has changed since then, though, as L.A. appears to be turning a corner. The Lakers have won eight of their last 11 games and all three of their contests after the All-Star break.
Start Time: Monday, Feb. 25 at 9 p.m. ET
Location: Pepsi Center in Denver
Team Records: Los Angeles Lakers (28-29) vs. Denver Nuggets (35-22)
TV Info: Altitude Sports
Live Stream: N/A
Lakers Injury Report (Via CBS Sports):
F Pau Gasol, Foot, Out
F Jordan Hill, Hip, Out for season
Nuggets Injury Report (Via Rotowire):
F Danilo Gallinari, Thigh, Day-to-day
Key Storyline: Kobe Bryant's Guarantee
It's not a question of if the Lakers make the postseason for Kobe Bryant, despite his team's struggles this season. Bryant guaranteed the Lakers would make the postseason after a post-All-Star break win over the Boston Celtics at the Staples Center.
Bryant's optimism and belief in his teammates is rubbing off on everyone in the locker room. For the first time this season the collective group seems to be playing together, and at a high level.
It hasn't been an overnight transformation. We all sat back and marveled at the dismal play of this team for much of the season, mocking their championship aspirations after assembling this alleged sure-fire title contending team this past offseason.
What started out with lofty expectations suddenly became one of the biggest basketball disappointments in recent history.
But, Bryant and the Lakers are proving right now that they still have some fight left in them. Going into Denver and stealing a win to continue their drive towards a postseason berth would be simply remarkable considering the odds stacked against them in this matchup.
Key Matchup: Danilo Gallinari vs. Metta World Peace
Sure, Kobe Bryant against Andre Iguodala might be a big matchup, but Danilo Gallinari and Metta World Peace are going to have their own battle on Monday night.
Gallinari, who is leading the Nuggets in scoring with 16.9 points per game, has killed the Lakers this season. He's been on-point from behind the three-point line, hitting 45 percent of his attempts from deep.
But, World Peace's aggressive perimeter defense held the sharpshooter to a 41 percent mark from that range while he connected on 60 percent of attempts with him on the bench.
The takeaway here is that despite World Peace's solid defense, Gallinari has been able to exploit the Lakers' defense this season. He's a solid shooter from nearly everywhere on the floor, with exception to the left arc.
On the flip side, World Peace's game doesn't seem to change very much whether Gallinari is on the floor or not. He isn't having one of his most productive seasons offensively, although his numbers are up from the past two seasons.
Denver has proven to be a difficult task for the veteran. He is shooting just 32.4 percent from the field and only 30.4 percent from behind the three-point line in three games against Denver this season.
Hopefully he continues with his hot hand. World Peace has hit 38 percent of his threes in his last five games.
X-Factor: Antawn Jamison
Antawn Jamison was a quiet addition to the Lakers amid an offseason highlighted by moves to acquire point guard Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Both have had up-and-down seasons, as has Jamison. But it has been the trusty volume-scoring veteran who has come on strong lately that has helped turn things around for L.A.
Over the last 10 games Jamison has shined all over the court. He is averaging 16 points per contest and shooting a much-improved 43.8 percent from three-point range. The forward's spike in production hasn't gone unnoticed by Mike D'Antoni. Jamison's minutes have gone up from his season average of 21 to 26 minutes over that five-game span.
Luckily for Jamison, and the Lakers, he has performed exceedingly well against the Nuggets this season. Denver has surrendered a 66.7 percent field-goal percentage to him and he has drained 45.5 percent of his three-pointers in the three games against them this season.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Steve Nash
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Metta World Peace
PF: Earl Clark
C: Dwight Howard
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: Andre Iguodala
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Kosta Koufos
It's nearly impossible to vote against a determined Kobe Bryant. But, that's exactly what I'm going to do here. While the Lakers may still make the playoffs, I don't think they'll be doing themselves any favors on Monday night in Denver.
The Nuggets are a team that moves the ball extremely well and can battle down low to control the boards. Their offensive chemistry and teamwork, especially with the added bonus of their home crowd, will be too much for the Lakers in their second game in two days away from the Staples Center.
Final Score Prediction: Nuggets 110, Lakers 104