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Ball Don’t Lie’s playoff predictions: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets

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Kobe Bryant strides to the basket with confidence (Getty Images)

The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first round matchups.

[Related: Yahoo! Sports' predictions for the 2012 NBA playoffs]

We continue with the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.

***

From your pal, Kelly Dwyer

Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed, and mindful of what town they're in.

You're going to feel better, now. Your pal insists on it.

In the 14 months since the Denver Nuggets dealt Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, you could safely say that there is no "there" there in Denver. That's OK with me, because you're always safe with me. Stride easy, though, because the air is thin up here.

Of course, this lends credence to the criticism that the Nuggets, full of darn good rotation parts and featuring a coach in George Karl that has learned how to adapt on the fly in a postseason, don't feature the sort of star power needed to take over a game in the major moments. Then again, the points scored at the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter count for just as much as the ones dropped in during the final seconds, and if you can develop that 12-point lead early in the fourth, all the late-game heroics that we're used to seeing from Los Angeles are muted before the trumpet can even come out of the case.

You don't like jazz? We'll find something else for you. Seriously, take the wheel on Pandora. We like everything.

The Lakers, though, have improved considerably in the final minutes of games this year. After years of watching their usually top gear offensive efficiency marks drop off significantly in the final minutes of games, better decision-making from Kobe Bryant and all involved have made the Lakers something to behold in the final minutes of most games, and not just those one-in-three where the Kobester would hit a huge shot.

But of significantly more importance is the way that the team's offense, once mired in the middle of the pack with Derek Fisher and Steve Blake logging heavy minutes, has shot back up to nearly the top of the NBA with the addition of Ramon Sessions and more minutes for Matt Barnes. And this jump comes in the midst of an admitted malaise from Andrew Bynum, who could really put his team over the top if he returns to the level of anticipation and achievement that netted him that deserved All-Star nod.

[Related: Jeremy Lin outsells Kobe, LeBron on NBA's best-selling jersey list]

Kobe might not get his way amongst the Nuggets' phalanx of wing defenders, but he might not have to if Sessions is allowed to poke and prod, and Bynum returns to form. Then it would be the Lakers, and not those runnin' Nuggies (second in the NBA in possessions per game), that would be taking the 12-point lead with 10 minutes to go. And unless Kobe chucks eight threes again, the Lakers' newfound balance should find a way, even if Denver has them in the depth department.

Perhaps we're a little too enamored with the Lakers' potential, but can you blame us? They're sweethearts.

Lakers in six.

***

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NBA players, deep in thought. (Nene via AP, Young via Getty Images)

'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine

For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.

No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets

"To my way of thinking, there's nothing that can't be cured by a big ol' pot of beans. Except maybe bean fever."

This is how Kobe Bean Bryant thinks of everything: More of me (and specifically, more shot attempts by me) is the cure for whatever ails the Los Angeles Lakers. This is not a new thing; Bryant has led the NBA in field-goal attempts five times in the last seven years, including the last two. He averaged 23 shots per game this season, his most since heaving an obscene 27.2 per game for that ungainly '05-'06 L.A. squad that saw Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook play more than 7,800 combined minutes. (You can see why he didn't think there was much point in giving the ball up.)

Whether Kobe is wrong in this line of thinking has become something of a holy war among basketball fans. On one side of the great divide stand those (generally Lakers fans) who think he is correct, that he has earned the right to take any shot he wants, that he is forever and always the team's best option. On the other stand those (typically advanced statheads) who reference reams of "clutch" stats, usage rates and offensive efficiency numbers to show that Kobe's not as good as he thinks he is. (Then again, there may be no man born of women as good as Kobe thinks he is.)

Where you or I stand on the general issue doesn't really matter; in this particular series, against this particular opponent, there's a better option than Kobe doin' work. Actually, two of them. Big, tall ones.

[Dan Wetzel: NBA players should want answers for union's controversy]

Here's the pitch: The matchup Kobe's most likely to see is significantly less advantageous for the Lakers than the ones his twin-tower frontline of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are likely to see. Kobe's going to be seeing an awful lot of Arron Afflalo over the next couple of weeks, and Afflalo's reputation as one of the league's better defenders at the two spot is buoyed by NBA.com's player vs. player comparison tool, which shows that Kobe has performed considerably worse this season with Afflalo on the floor than when he's not.

When the two guards have shared the court this season, Bryant's down nine points per 36 minutes off his season scoring average, 14 percent on field-goal attempts and 21 percent on 3-point accuracy, and he gets to the free-throw line about half as often as he does when Afflalo's on the bench. That dovetails with the numbers from their two matchups last year — Kobe's scoring (26.9 to 20.7), field-goal percentage (45 percent to 38 percent), 3-point percentage (32 percent to 14 percent) and free-throw attempts (7.6 to 6.1) all dipped when Afflalo was on the court. What didn't drop appreciably, however, were his field-goal attempts — Kobe actually put up two more shots per 36 minutes than his season average when Afflalo was on the floor this year.

On the flip side, Bynum and Gasol are going to face a Denver frontcourt featuring the likes of rookie stud Kenneth Faried, the mercurial JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. That's a quick, young, active group … and it's also a significantly more appetizing proposition for L.A.

Bynum's been dominant when Faried, Mozgov and Koufos have been on the court this season, according to NBA.com's metrics. Ditto for Gasol's time against Faried and Koufos; while his rebounding and assist numbers are lower with Mozgov on the floor, Pau's still +9-per-36 when he's out there.

The outlier here, interestingly enough, is McGee, who seems to have given both Bynum and Gasol trouble this year. While Bynum scored on McGee pretty much at will in their two meetings, McGee gave even better than he got, outperforming Bynum by just under seven points per 36 minutes. Likewise, Gasol's scoring, assist and plus-minus numbers were all down when McGee was on the court. It's not surprising that McGee would be a wild card; what is surprising is that it might actually be for a positive reason.

Even if McGee and company can turn in strong performances over the course of a full series, though, it's unlikely that they'll be able to do so one-on-one, which means double-teams on the post and open shooters for the big men to target. Plus, working out of the post and forcing the Nuggets' guards to sink down closer to the basket could slow Denver's fast break game, which they love (18 percent of their offensive possessions come in transition, according to MySynergySports.com) and use well (the Nuggets average 1.2 points per transition possession, third-best in the league, and lead the NBA with 19.8 fast break points per game). That would be a big benefit for the Lakers, who struggle to defend in transition; they allow 1.18 points per possession by Synergy's charting, fourth-worst in the league.

[Video: Which team will win the 2012 NBA championship?]

It's not that Kobe should run away from Big, Bad Arron Afflalo; it's that he should play it smart, save his bullets and let his big guys play bully against a team ill-equipped to handle the pounding. If he doesn't — if he starts bricking frequently enough to allow Ty Lawson and Andre Miller to open up Denver's running game — then the Nuggets could put a scare into the No. 3 seed. If he does, the Lakers should advance in relatively short order. I think Kobe's smart enough to press the advantage and I don't think Denver will be able to deal with it.

PREDICTION: Lakers in six.

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Five Predictions for Los Angeles vs. Denver, From the Sensible Eric Freeman

1. JaVale McGee will disappoint on his biggest stage and not do anything completely ridiculous.
2. Andrew Bynum will get annoyed at his number of touches, likely in a win.
3. Bynum will save the Lakers a win in a game where Kobe Bryant makes a terribly low percentage of his shots.
4. The Lakers will finally have a playoff series in which their opponent's very good point guard does not look like a superstar.
5. Lakers in six.

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