Metta World Peace works out at the Staples Center on May 8th (Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace averaged 14.1 points on 47 percent shooting in April, adding more than four rebounds a game despite playing just 32 minutes a contest -- and not really being asked to do much outside of defending the best wing player and not put up crazy stats. Three weeks into that month, Metta World Peace did something ridiculously crazy — carelessly bashing Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden with an elbow, and he was suspended seven games, as a result, beginning with his team's final regular-season win. With the Lakers due to play the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of their opening-round series, holy crap, Metta World Peace is coming back. He's actually allowed to play.
The Lakers need a shot in the arm. Andrew Bynum is moping through plays, nobody can stay in front of the Nuggets' guards, Pau Gasol isn't working his way toward good looks and the team's rotation is severely lacking. Always a top-heavy outfit, the Lakers have now lost two straight to the Nuggies because of the steep falloff in production once you move beyond Kobe Bryant, Bynum and Gasol. World Peace would seem to fit wonderfully.
But he's Metta World Peace. It's not so much that he's going to fling an elbow at Denver's Andre Miller (mostly because 'Dre would probably block it with his cane) or do something suspension-worthy in his first game back. It's because M.W.P. is the definition of mercurial. You don't know what you're going to get from him every night -- and, worse, one has to wonder just how much he can contribute after nearly three weeks away from in-game NBA action. What can the Lakers reasonably (hah!) expect from their man Metta in Game 7? And should expectations even be placed on the guy?
We'll start with what we know. Though M.W.P. has done well to transform his body after a sluggish start to the lockout-shortened season, no amount of practice and weight-room work can prepare someone from dashing into an NBA game after three weeks off. The air is completely different up there, even if the Lakers will be playing down there in Los Angeles instead of Denver's thin air. World Peace looked to be fit as a fiddle in his appearance on "Conan" earlier this week, but none of this will matter the first time he has to stay in front of Ty Lawson on a switch.
Worse, the adrenaline charge of returning to that forum (or Staples Center) in such a rush, and the subsequent come down, can wear on a man. Metta can pace himself. He can somehow get a good night's rest on Friday (because everybody sleeps well the night before a Game 7 after not playing NBA basketball for three weeks, with the eyes of the sporting world on you) and get a good game-day nap. He can time his leaps and watch his step. It might not matter. The brain and the body has a way of exhausting you, even as you set to do work you've managed effortlessly throughout 13 NBA seasons.
This is the part that we're not sure about. This is the part where we put Metta World Peace into the equation.
World Peace knows he was playing darn well in April. For all his feigned indifference, M.W.P. wants the attention and he wants to do well in your eyes. And after a season mainly spent barely looking worthy of the Lakers' already-thin rotation, Metta was playing fantastic basketball for a team on the make. Not only does he know he screwed up in beaning James Harden (despite his public pronouncements and embarrassing Twitter asides), but he also wants to make right for a season that has mostly gone wrong, production-wise.
The culmination of all these fitful thoughts might not look all that spectacular. When this guy presses, it rarely turns out well — whether he's looking to make up for something that was or wasn't his fault. Even when he's not pressing, simply deciding that he's going to work a throwback game and declare himself a go-to player of sorts offensively, M.W.P. can completely take a team out of its rhythm with his itchy trigger finger. In a short-term, just 95 possessions spread out over 48 minutes in the most important game of the NBA's season thus far, every decision tends to mean quite a bit. We aren't selling this too much — every dribble matters and every shot has to be taken by someone who knows what they're doing.
All this is compounded by the fact that the Lakers' rotation players, despite good intentions, have fallen off significantly in the postseason. Matt Barnes, by any definition, was World Peace's replacement (OK, maybe not by any definition). Half his shots have come from behind the arc, and he's missed 21 of 24 from long range, making just 27 percent overall. Devin Ebanks hasn't done much of note, and the Lakers' small lineup in M.W.P.'s absence hasn't gone well because Steve Blake is shooting just 36 percent on the series and losing his way defensively.
This is to say that the Lakers need Metta World Peace, and any bit of contribution he gives in Game 7 will be judged on a curve. But this is also to say that every decision Metta makes with the ball has to be precise and efficient. He has to find that impossibly tough balance between working inside his personal flow while making sure every move is carefully considered. All while re-adjusting to the NBA's blistering pace in both mental and physical terms.
It won't be easy. It's going to be wearying, and it's only one game. Somehow, though, you get the feeling that Metta World Peace wouldn't want it any other way.
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