Los Angeles Lakers: 3 Best First-Round Playoff Matchups
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Currently sitting two games ahead of the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks with 12 games left to play, the Los Angeles Lakers face their final extended road trip of the 2013 season beginning against the Golden State Warriors. With a record of 36-34, the Lakers probably have to win seven of their next 12 games to ensure a playoff berth.
And while that spot is not a given, especially on the heels of really bad losses to bottom feeders Phoenix and Washington, there are still preferable matchups for this team that still has tremendous top end talent.
See, unlike the regular season, there are no back-to-back games in the normal NBA playoff format. After starting 17-25, the Lakers have gone 19-9 largely because they have played well in games with at least one day of rest in between. Four of their nine losses since January 23 have been the second game of a back-to-back.
In other words, this aging team is better suited for the grind of the postseason, where adjustments and recovery time benefit older rosters. Still, there are definitely opponents that suit this Laker team better than others. So here are the three best possible first-round matchups for the Lakers.
3) Denver Nuggets
Faried and Denver's open floor athletic squad would face interesting challenge from Lakers
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This would be a very interesting clash of styles. The white hot Nuggets were in the midst of a 15-game winning streak that ended against the New Orleans Hornets. Sitting squarely in the third seed, they would have to remain in this position, and the Lakers would have to pass both Houston and Golden State for this matchup to take place.
In the season series, Denver leads two games to one with all three games being high-scoring affairs. The Lakers dominated Denver 122-103 behind Antawn Jamison's 33 points and Dwight Howard's 20 rebounds. The last two games, Denver won 112-105 in a game that saw Pau Gasol exit with a concussion.
The only game in Denver saw Ty Lawson and company outrun the tired Lakers 119-108, scoring an obscene 78 points in the paint. It was—predictably—the second game of a back-to-back.
The reason Denver makes this list is because they are a team that is reliant on their up tempo, aggressive style of play to generate offense. That has largely been the reason for George Karl's teams being so inconsistent in the postseason in Seattle and Denver.
For the Lakers to win a series like this, they would have to buck their season long habit of ball insecurity and execute in the half court, something they have shown a greater aptitude for doing since late January.
Defensively, making Denver a jump-shooting team is paramount. The Lakers' biggest defensive weaknesses are transition defense and dribble penetration, which happen to be Denver's biggest strengths with Ty Lawson at point guard.
However, close games might tilt to Los Angeles because of Denver's lack of a crunch time scorer, though Lawson has delivered in a few games.
Ultimately, experience also favors the Lakers. These teams have met six times in the postseason; the Lakers have won six times. The Nuggets have won seven games—total. Yes, I'm officially grasping now. Next slide.
2) San Antonio Spurs
Parker and the Spurs represent another version of the NBA's old guard
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This is currently the matchup that the Lakers would face in the first round. And quite a few Laker fans I have interacted with seem to have a preference for the Spurs.
I feel this is a construct of prior playoff success against San Antonio. Since 2000, the Lakers and Spurs have met five times in the postseason, with the Lakers winning four of those series. The most recent was the 2008 Western Conference Finals.
In other words, a lot has changed since their last playoff battle. But really, not a lot has changed. Unlike some of the other elite teams, the Spurs do not beat you with athleticism. This team wins on the strength of tremendous team play, basketball IQ and execution.
That is not to say that the Spurs don't have young talent. Kawhi Leonard is a very solid forward, and DeJuan Blair and Danny Green have added to the Spurs core. But that core is and remains the trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and of course, Tim Duncan.
The two regular-season meetings between these teams have both come down to execution at the end of the game. Green's jumper over Kobe Bryant on November 13 gave the Spurs an 84-82 win in Los Angeles. In the second meeting, the Lakers rallied from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit but fell 108-105 as potential game-tying jumpers from Bryant and Earl Clark both missed.
Ultimately, the reason the Lakers have a puncher's chance against the current top seed is because the Spurs often elect to play the game at a slow enough pace to allow the Lakers to match them in execution. Unlike the Thunder or Clippers, the Lakers can afford to be more methodical against San Antonio, which is precisely why I think they can be the next team.
1) Memphis Grizzlies
Coach Hollins and Randolph lead a solid, but flawed playoff team
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Memphis is number one for a direct reason: The Grizzlies average 93.5 points per game. That is good for 26th in the NBA and second-worst for would be playoff teams. This Lakers team is best when competing methodically. There is not a more methodical team than the Memphis Grizzlies.
Yes, Los Angeles has lost the first two meetings. But two things are notable. First, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were missing from the first two games (Nash the first game and Gasol the second). And second, both of those games featured the Grizzlies with Rudy Gay.
Since Gay was traded to Toronto, Memphis has gone 5-5 against playoff teams. Much has been made of their 18-8 record since the deal, but the bulk of those wins have come against lottery bound teams. Even more favorable to Los Angeles, in those games, Memphis has averaged 93.6 points per game.
Against those 10 playoff teams, the Grizzlies average 90.8 points per game. Memphis' supreme advantage against most teams lies in their tandem of forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol. The Lakers directly combat that with their tandem of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. This would be a series where starting Gasol would make the most sense.
The only issue is that Memphis is not likely to jump up to the number three spot, which is the only spot where the Lakers would have a shot of playing them. It would not be an easy series, but matchups against Memphis favor the Lakers more than any team in the Western Conference that they could conceivably play in the first round.
A date with the Thunder likely spells doom for the Lakers
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There is ying and there are also some yangs for the Lakers. Facing the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers likely spell very fast exits for the Lakers. Both teams have the combination of athletes and skilled point guards that are death to this team as constructed.
This is a very flawed Lakers team. Perhaps in the end, it really doesn't matter who/when/where they play. If they make the postseason, it's just a quick and ugly exit. You never quite know what kind of team is going to show up, which seems really strange for such a veteran team.
Ultimately, that is what Laker fans should hang their hats on. The game slows down in the playoffs. And as mercurial as this team is, there is the opportunity to make one run once they get into the playoffs. At this point, a team is what it is.
So for the Lakers, their best hope is to get a matchup that is as favorable as possible and then maximize their talent for one playoff round. I don't think they have much more than that in 2013.