Denver Nuggets Await the Lakers or Rockets

Paul PeszkoSenior Writer IMay 15, 2009

DENVER - MAY 13:  J.R. Smith #1 of the Denver Nuggets battles for a rebound against Jason Kidd #2 of the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center on May 13, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Mavericks 124-110 to advance to the Western Conference Finals. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Denver closed out their Western Semifinal series with Dallas 124-110 and left no doubt who was the better team. Now they await the winner of the Lakers-Rockets series.

The Lakers lead that series 3-2, but game six tonight is in Houston where "Amazing" happened last Sunday. So, as I write this, there is no telling who the Nuggets will face in the Western Conference Finals.

One thing is for sure though, Denver has the talent and the coaching to win out no matter which team they play.

Many concede that Houston without Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutumbo and Tracey McGrady don’t stand much of a chance against the high scoring Nuggets who have sailed through the playoffs so far.

But, on the other hand, the sportswriters around Los Angeles think the Lakers will take the Nuggets in a hard fought series.

I say, think again. Unlike last year when the Lakers swept the Nuggets in the opening round of the playoffs, the Nuggets have a legitimate big man, Nene, in the middle. He was available in last year’s series but had been recovering from cancer surgery and hadn’t reached the top of his game.

Last night, Nene had 17 points on 80 percent shooting (8-of-10) and seven rebounds. He also posted the highest plus-minus rating (+17).

Last year, the Nuggets had Alan Iverson. This year, they have none other than Chauncey Billups. What a difference a year and a trade make. Billups has been everything that Iverson wasn’t. A team player, an extraordinary ball handler, and he can knock down a jumper from anywhere on the court.

Just take last night’s emphatic closeout against the Mavericks as an example. Billups not only had 28 points but 12 assists and seven rebounds. He had a triple double if you include his plus minus rating (+15) and was three of six from beyond the arc.

Then there is Denver’s NBA and Team USA all star, Carmelo Anthony, who had 30 points, on 13-of-22 shooting. He was four-of-seven on three-point shots. Melo is averaging 27 points in the playoffs along with 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists.

The Nuggets’ other shooter that either the Lakers or the Rockets will have to face is J.R. Smith off the bench. Even though he is not starting, they will see a lot of him. Against the Mavericks last night he had 18 points along with six assists and five rebounds.

Smith actually played more minutes (29) than the Nuggets starter, Dahntay Jones (19). Jones only took four shots but made three of them and finished with eight points. J.R. is averaging 16.3 points so far in the playoffs.

And I saved the best for last, the Nuggets’ henchman, power forward Kenyon Martin. K-Mart joins Nene in the back court and can hit the jump shot or go to the basket. Last night against Dallas, he had 15 points with four assists and four steals and was a +13.

So with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Dahntay Jones, and Chauncey Billups on the court, who do the Lakers or Rockets double team? More importantly, who do they leave open?

The Lakers have an awful tendency to give opponents wide open jump shots or to close late. Should they make it to the Finals and play that lazy defense that has been their trademark this year, it will be a short series.

The other question for both the Rockets and the Lakers is who will post up against Nene and K-Mart.

The Rockets are down to Chuck Hayes and Luis Scola. The Lakers are in better shape size wise with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.

But Bynum has showed very little in the playoffs. He will have to mature quickly and get his game up to playoff level quickly if he expects to do anything against Nene and K-Mart.

Lamar Odom is the Lakers best chance, but he is playing injured. It will be difficult for him to counter the play of Denver’s much tougher and stronger backcourt unless his bruised back has healed.

Pau Gasol has a tendency to drift in and out of games. He also tends to back down his opponents rather than front them, which he will need to do against Nene.

The local sportswriters seem to think Derek Fisher will have a much easier time playing against Chauncey Billups than he has against his younger, speedier opponents.

I don’t know what gives them that idea. Maybe they haven’t watched Billups as closely as I have. Like his fellow shooters, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, Billups has hit three pointers and long twos with defenders draped all over him. Although Billups may be a little older and a littler slower than Aaron Brooks, he is twice as crafty and twice as consistent.

Brooks had 34 points against the Lakers on Sunday then came back with just 14 points on Tuesday night, which is closer to his playoff average of 16 points and 3.4 assists. But Billups is much more consistent, averaging 22 points and 7.3 assists.

Denver will be favored against the Rockets, but may be a slight underdog against the Lakers only because the Lakers have home court advantage. But as I see it, home court and Kobe Bryant are the only advantages the Lakers will have. The rest of the advantages fall to the Nuggets.

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