Jim Mone/Associated Press file photo
Jim Mone/Associated Press file photo
LOS ANGELES – Instead of worrying about the Black Mamba at Saturday’s practice, the Denver Nuggets couldn’t stop talking about the Rattlesnake.
That’s their new nickname for Arron Afflalo, coined by point guard Andre Miller for the former UCLA guard’s quick-strike moves.
“I know I don’t want to get bit by either one,” Denver coach George Karl said.
Everybody got a good laugh before the Nuggets got down to business on orchestrating a major playoff upset.
The Nuggets are facing the aforementioned Mamba and his Los Angeles Lakers in the postseason for the third time in five years, starting with Game 1 at Staples Center on Sunday, so Karl already knows plenty about what doesn’t work against Kobe Bryant and his 7-foot teammates.
The Nuggets see a chance to get it right this time, but only if they run the Lakers off the court. The NBA’s highest-scoring team will attempt to run relentlessly, using its excellent transition offense to force its preferred tempo on an opponent missing Metta World Peace, arguably Los Angeles’ best defensive player.
“When they miss shots, we’ve got to run out and get the game at our pace,” said guard Ty Lawson, the Nuggets’ leading scorer. “We know they’re going to try to slow it down, but we can’t change our game plan. We’re going to do what we do.”
The third-seeded Lakers open their quest for their 17th NBA title against another perennial playoff team with sharply contrasting personnel and style. While Los Angeles is built around Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol on both ends of a half-court game, the Nuggets excel with speed and transition because they’re the best team in the NBA at making layups, according to Lakers’ head coach Mike Brown.
Karl has plenty of schemes to cause trouble for the Lakers, and he employed a few in the Nuggets’ last visit to Staples Center two weeks ago. Denver can employ a small lineup that forces Brown to use Bynum less, but the Lakers overcame it for a six-point win over the Nuggets even while Bryant sat out to rest a bruised shin.
“I just feel like we’re playing well,” said Bryant, who has missed the playoffs just once in his 16-season Lakers career. “We’ve got good size, and we’re playing in a good rhythm. ... (With) their speed, their versatility, they can really go to a small lineup, and it can be pretty problematic for us.”
The Lakers are confident they’re ready for their first playoff run under Brown, who replaced 11-time champion Phil Jackson. Jackson’s final Lakers’ team lost its playoff opener last spring to New Orleans – a team with much less playoff experience and togetherness than these Nuggets – before getting swept by Dallas in the second round.
“For the guys that were here last year, it’s great to get out there to redeem yourselves for what took place last year,” Bryant said.
Bryant and Bynum both are remarkably healthy heading into the postseason, in sharp contrast to several previous Lakers playoff campaigns. Bryant sat out eight of the Lakers’ final 10 games to rest from the compacted schedule, and his oft-injured knees are in good shape.
Denver had to win eight of its final 10 games to earn the sixth seed, while the Lakers clinched the Pacific Division title and the third seed earlier in the week. That allowed Brown to rest Bryant, Gasol, Bynum and injured reserve Matt Barnes in their final regular-season game, giving Los Angeles’ stars a full week off before hosting the Nuggets.
While the Lakers’ core has ample playoff experience, Ramon Sessions is eager to start at point guard in the first playoff game of his five-season, four-team NBA career. Sessions’ speed and quickness provided a huge late-season boost to the sometimes-plodding Lakers after they traded five-time champion Derek Fisher, and they could interfere with Denver’s plans.
“Everybody knows this is what they do around here,” Sessions said. “That’s the reason they’ve got 16 banners hanging up. It’s an honor to be with a team that’s going to the playoffs and playing to win the whole thing.”
Los Angeles must play its next six games without the suspended World Peace, who can practice and travel with the Lakers. Low-scoring Devin Ebanks will start in World Peace’s spot, and Barnes is “100-percent” certain he’ll play off the bench on his still-painful sprained ankle.
Karl isn’t terribly encouraged by World Peace’s absence, realizing the mercurial defensive specialist isn’t the Nuggets’ biggest problem.
If Karl doesn’t play small ball, the Nuggets have an array of big men who can take a shot at guarding Bynum and Gasol, including newcomer JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov, Al Harrington and even Chris Andersen.
Karl joked the Nuggets should take a page out of the NHL playbook and send out their centers in shifts every few possessions, if only NBA substitution rules allowed it.
“They have more talent than we probably have, and I think we rely on teamwork more than they do,” Karl said. “I think we’ve been dealt some good things with Artest being out, and Barnes, I hope he’s got a sore ankle.”
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press file photo