It's difficult to imagine the Los Angeles Lakers not participating in the playoffs since they have only missed the dance twice since the late 1970s.
The Lakers punched their ticket to the postseason for a seventh straight year and are Pacific Division champions in each of the last five seasons. Los Angeles grabbed the third seed in the Western Conference standings and will face the No. 7 Denver Nuggets in the opening round.
Los Angeles, which won the title in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, defeated the New Orleans Hornets in six games to kick off last year's playoffs before the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks swept the Lakers in round two. That left a sour taste in the mouths of the Lakers, and they may not get a chance for revenge since Dallas is playing Oklahoma City in the first round.
Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant will lead a determined bunch that includes newcomer Ramon Sessions and big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Defensive stopper Metta World Peace will not be around for the next six games after he was suspended for a violent elbow to the head of Thunder top reserve James Harden. World Peace's seven-game suspension started on Thursday.
Head coach Mike Brown weighed in on the upcoming playoffs.
"You want to be as healthy as possible at this point, especially going into the postseason," said Brown, who is in his first year as Lakers head coach. "Our guys are in the right spot health-wise, and hopefully we'll be able to go into this thing with some energy on top of the health and let nobody outwork us."
Bryant was nursing a sore left shin at the end of the regular season and averaged a team-high 27.9 points in 58 out of 66 games. Bryant, Bynum and Gasol all rested in the season finale -- a 113-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings. Bryant, a five-time champion and league MVP, has played in 208 career playoff games (188 starts) with averages of 25.4 points. The two-time scoring champion will need his teammates' help, however, in order to get out of the first round. The Lakers are looking to capture their 18th title.
Denver, which led the NBA in scoring with 104.1 ppg, has never been crowned champion, but will appear in the playoffs for a ninth consecutive time. The Nuggets were bounced from the postseason in five games last year against Oklahoma City and appear to be at full strength.
Led by Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets closed out the regular season on a hot note, winning four straight and eight of 10 games.
"I'm just excited about being in the playoffs and I plan on playing as hard as I have since I've been in Denver," said forward JaVale McGee, who was acquired from Washington this season. "As long as we go out and play like we have been playing, we should be fine."
Going up against an experienced Lakers squad may not be so fine for Denver.
The Lakers won the 2011-12 season series with the Nuggets 3-1 after dropping last season's series (1-2) as well as the 2009-10 series (1-3). The Lakers and Nuggets have met in the postseason five times (1979, 1985, 1987, 2008, 2009) with the Lakers advancing on each occasion, most recently defeating Denver 4-2 in the 2009 Western Conference Finals en route to their 17th title.
POINT GUARD: Sessions will make his playoff debut and had some big shoes to fill when the Lakers sent veteran Derek Fisher packing at the trade deadline. Sessions is obviously younger and has fresher legs than Fisher and averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 assists in 23 games (19 starts) with LA. Sessions went from outhouse to penthouse when he left lowly Cleveland and will be expected to run the show under the bright lights of the playoffs. Whether he'll crack under pressure remains to be seen.
Nuggets point guard Lawson averaged a team-best 16.4 points and 6.6 assists in 61 of 66 games this season, and has improved tremendously through the years. Lawson gets the ball to his teammates with ease and can also drive the lane despite his small size. Lawson plays big and is mainly responsible for getting the Nuggets into the playoffs. He has appeared in 11 career postseason games (5 starts) and owns averages of 11.4 points and 3.2 assists.
SHOOTING GUARD: Bryant is arguably the best player in the league and is a candidate to win another MVP award. Bryant, the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals MVP, is fifth on the NBA's all-time scoring list and will create problems for a Nuggets team that he averaged 17.7 points against in three games this season. In 56 career games against Denver, he owns 25.0 ppg. Bryant has scored 10 or more points in a playoff game 159 consecutive times and is averaging 20-plus points in a franchise record 30 straight playoff series. Shutting him down is a difficult task for any team and the Nuggets already know that.
Afflalo is averaging 18.0 ppg in his last 18 and will be no match for what Bryant brings from the No. 2 spot. Afflalo is not much of a defender and does some damage from the outside. The Nuggets, however, have gotten by with Afflalo's skill set and are counting on him to shine with Lawson and Gallinari. Afflalo is part of the second-youngest team in the league with an average age of 25.6 years old. In 25 career playoff games (9 starts), Afflalo has posted 5.1 points and 1.2 rebounds.
CENTER: Kosta Koufos is not a well-known player, but he is Denver's best big man. The 7-0 center posted 5.5 points and 5.4 boards this season, and the Nuggets hope he can hold his own against Bynum. Koufos is an average player with very few moves. He has some playoff experience, appearing in 10 postseason games with averages of just 1.0 points and 0.9 rebounds in only 3.2 minutes of action. This series will be a major test for Koufos.
Bynum stayed healthy this season unlike past years and should have an easy time this series. The talented center gave his team a scare with a rolled ankle in the latter stages of the season and shook off the injury, playing in 60 of the 66 contests in 2011-12. Bynum, who averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.93 blocks in 35.2 minutes this season, grabbed 30 rebounds in one game this month and gives the Lakers a dynamic trio with Bryant and Gasol. In 62 career playoff games, he has posted 8.2 points and 5.9 boards. Expect those numbers to increase after this series.
SMALL FORWARD: With World Peace suspended, the Lakers are forced to use Devin Ebanks at small forward. He played in 24 games (12 starts) this season and averaged 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 16.5 minutes. Ebanks has good size at 6-9, 215 pounds, but has never stepped foot on the court during the playoffs. Ebanks will be tested for sure when this series gets started.
Gallinari missed some time with injuries this season and played 43 out of a possible 66 games in the regular season. The former Knick still averaged 14.6 points and 4.7 rebounds this season, and has an excellent shot. A streaky player at times, Gallinari played in five postseason games a year ago and had averages of 12.0 points and 3.4 boards. The Italian definitely has the edge in this matchup, but will need to tighten his defense.
POWER FORWARD: Kenneth Faried had an impressive rookie campaign in the Rocky Mountains with 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in 46 games (39 starts). Faried has a lot on his plate inside against Bynum and Gasol, and will be up to the task. The Morehead State product became the first player in the shot clock era to post 27-plus points and 17 or more rebounds in 25 minutes or less this season. He is the first Denver rookie to do that since Dikembe Mutombo back in 1992. Nicknamed "Manimal", Faried better be ready for this playoff series.
Gasol is a two-time NBA champion and will look to make it a third. He played in all but one game during the truncated season, posting 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.35 blocks in 37.4 minutes. The smooth Spaniard from Barcelona can hit the 18-footer with ease and also has a knack for scoring around the basket. Gasol, who rested in the regular season finale at Sacramento, ranks third on the franchise's all-time playoff blocks list and is the 10th foreign born player to reach 14,000 points during an NBA career. In 89 postseason contests -- all starts -- he has recorded 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds.
BENCH: LA's bench averaged 21.3 ppg and has a mix of talented players to choose from. Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy won't instill fear into opposing teams and are reliable when the usual suspects need a break.
Denver has a decent bench with McGee, Andre Miller, Corey Brewer and Timofey Mozgov. Miller is an experienced veteran who can run the point with the best of them and sees about 28 minutes per game. Miller will be used heavily in the postseason as well and led the team with 6.7 assists per game.
COACHING: Karl has guided the Nuggets to the playoffs in eight straight years and is coming off his 20th straight non-losing season. Phil Jackson leads that category with 21 consecutive winning seasons. Karl is pleased with his team's recent play and is optimistic the Nuggets can spoil the Lakers' hopes of another title. He teaches unselfishness and defense -- two vital cogs in winning basketball games. Karl's record proves that. Denver finished the season ranked first in the NBA in assists per game at 24.0. Karl has more than 1,000 career wins as well.
Brown has just 313 career wins and proved many naysayers wrong that he was a poor choice to replace Jackson on the bench. Brown was LeBron James' former coach in Cleveland before being shown the door and later caught on with the Lakers. Brown piloted the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals back in 2006-07 and owns a strong playoff record of 42-29. He doesn't have a resume like Karl's, but he knows how to win games, which he'll do often in this series with a more talented roster.
PREDICTION: Bryant isn't getting any younger and would enjoy matching childhood hero and mentor Michael Jordan with six championships. Arguably the greatest Laker ever, Bryant got through the grind that is the regular season and can now get to work on helping Los Angeles to another title run. He has help in Bynum and Gasol, and the addition of Sessions could put the Lakers over the top. The Nuggets are a talented team, but this is not the year for them. They could pull out a win or two in this series, and that's it. It will be a good experience for the young squad and Denver could use this series as motivation for a full 82-game slate in 2012-13.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: LAKERS in 5