Right after a Christmas Day victory over the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers will head to the Mile High City in search of their sixth straight victory. Steve Nash has definitely energized the lineup since returning from injury to run the point, and the Lakers are finally looking like a championship-caliber team. They are running on all cylinders and will look to continue their run against the Denver Nuggets tonight.
However, the Nuggets are a feisty team out for some post-holiday revenge. They too played on Christmas Day, losing to the Los Angeles Clippers, and there would be no better way to have some sort of vengeance than to beat another Los Angeles team.
The Lakers have struggled on the road this season, going just 5-8, so the Nuggets could very well get their wish. They have gone an astounding 8-1 at home, so it is definitely possible for them to pull off the upset.
Both teams also faced off earlier in the season, with the Lakers winning 122-103 on November 30. Antawn Jamison led the way that night, scoring 33 points and pulling down 12 rebounds, and Kobe Bryant chipped in 14 points and eight assists.
But Jamison is a non-factor now, with Nash and Pau Gasol back in the lineup. Denver likely won't have to worry about his three-point shooting, which makes the potential outcome of this game far different, and a game that should not be missed.
Time: Wednesday, December 26th, 9:00 p.m. EST
TV: Altitude Sports, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet
Records: Los Angeles Lakers (14-14) vs. Denver Nuggets (15-14)
Betting Line: Lakers (+3.5), Nuggets (-3.5)
Injuries: Steve Blake (abdomen, out), Wilson Chandler (hip, out), Julyan Stone (hip, out), Ty Lawson (Achilles, expected to play)
Key Storyline: Nuggets Seek to Avenge Earlier Loss and Break Lakers' Streak
The Lakers have one mission tonight: extend the winning streak to six games. This is easier said than done not only because the team has struggled on the road thus far, but also because Denver has played remarkably well at home.
Denver has also done a fine job of putting points on the board, ranking seventh in points scored and sixth in assists. The team's interior defense has been respectable as well, ranking third in rebounding.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets have been inconsistent on defense all season long. Though they can do their fare share of rebounding, stopping opposing players from scoring points is not their collective forte. Denver ranks 25th in points allowed, at 100.7 per game.
Los Angeles is a run-and-gun team led by head coach Mike D'Antoni, and also happens to be the best rebounding squad in the league on top of ranking fifth in points scored. They have been playing with a new attitude over their past five games, and Nash's recent return has only further fueled their motivation to do well.
The newly focused and balanced Lakers will thus try to continue their streak tonight, against a Denver team that has performed well at home all season. Both teams like to play a fast-paced offense, so a high-scoring night could definitely be in the works. Either way, the fans should tune in.
Key Matchup: Andre Iguodala vs. Kobe Bryant
Despite playing in a new system, Kobe Bryant has continued to flourish. Even at 34 years old, he leads the league in scoring with 29.9 points per game. Bryant has also averaged 5.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting a highly respectable 37 percent from long range.
He'll be in for quite the challenge tonight when he goes up against Andre Iguodala yet again. Iguodala is one of the best defenders in the NBA, and he held Bryant to just 14 points the first time these two teams met this season.
His numbers his first season in Denver have not been bad, but seem pretty low for a shooting guard. A natural small forward, Iguodala is averaging just 13.6 points per game and shooting just 32 percent from long range.
Iguodala's defense has still been at the top level. He's averaging 1.2 steals to go with 5.4 rebounds per game. He will need to be fully locked in on Bryant, who has averaged 32.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists during the Lakers' winning streak.
Losing the Black Mamba's skills on both sides of the floor would be a tremendous blow to the Lakers, so it is imperative that Iguodala win this battle if Denver is to walk away with the victory. Take Bryant out of the game, and the Lakers lose their best scoring option.
Take away the Lakers' best scorer, and their winning streak likely comes to an end.
X-Factor: Danilo Gallinari
The Nuggets, while trying to slow down Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense, will also try to keep up with the Lakers on offense. In this case, head coach George Karl should look to sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari.
Gallinari may seem like an odd choice for the game's X-factor, but he actually could give Denver a distinct advantage. He actually played for Mike D'Antoni for two and a half seasons before being sent to the Nuggets in the infamous Carmelo Anthony trade.
The man has inside knowledge as to how D'Antoni runs his system, so he could easily help give the Nuggets the upper hand on defense despite the fact that he himself is not a particularly strong defender.
Gallinari has also been hit-or-miss on offense this season. He is averaging 15.3 points to go with 5.6 rebounds, but he has shot just 38.5 percent from the field and 31 percent from long range, though he did score 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting against the Lakers on November 30.
His teammates will need him to give a repeat performance tonight, if not a completely better one. Gallinari is capable of being a phenomenal scorer, and him having his consistency and natural shooter's eye on his side tonight will immediately help the Nuggets keep the game close. The Lakers' offense can now be considered dangerous, and it is important that Denver's best offensive weapon be at his best in the quest for an upset victory.
The Nuggets will do all they can to stop the Lakers tonight. The sad part is that they will fail in their quest to break the team's winning streak.
I hate to say it, but Los Angeles is just too good now that they are at full strength and in a system designed to get the best out of everyone. Nash will run the pick-and-roll almost perfectly all game long, and Bryant will find a way past Iguodala's defense to once again lead the team in scoring.
Dwight Howard will prove to be too much for Denver's tandem of centers in Javale McGee and Kosta Koufos, dominating on both sides of the floor thanks to Nash. Metta World Peace will also contribute some clutch shots from beyond the arc.
Even Pau Gasol will have a good game, newly confident after making yesterday's game-winning dunk.
On Denver's end, Ty Lawson will fight past his sore Achilles tendon to create as many plays as possible for his teammates, particularly Danilo Gallinari, but the Lakers' defense will just prove to be too much.
As deep and talented as the Nuggets are, they are still without an identity. Tonight, that will become blatantly obvious, and team management will be forced to consider moves to make at or before the trade deadline in hopes of bettering the team.
Los Angeles Lakers 115, Denver Nuggets 107