Nuggets/Lakers Preview

JIM HURLEY'S HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

TWO HOTTEST TEAMS IN THE WEST
MEET SUNDAY IN THE NBA

It might be second round preview. It might be a Western Conference Championship preview. Or, it might be the last time these two red hot teams meet this season. But, when the Denver Nuggets visit the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday afternoon on ABC, it's DEFINITELY a game handicappers should be watching because of the playoff ramifications.

What you learn today may help you pick several winners down the road...all the way through the league Finals.

Let's start with the Denver Nuggets.

*Denver was having a nice enough year during the Carmelo Anthony saga. But, the sideshow became a distraction that had clearly derailed any hopes for a deep run in the playoffs. Denver was going to be in the 5-8 seed range. They weren't playing well enough to scare any of the top seeds.

*At the time of the Anthony trade, it was assumed the Nuggets would fall well off the pace. They might even fall out of the playoff picture. They had lost their 'superstar' and veteran leadership at the point guard position. They got a few guys from the Knicks who were seen as guys who weren't good enough to lead the Knicks to anything important.

*With that bleak outlook, the team EXPLODED! The remaining depth of the Nuggets took at the negative press as an insult, and went about showing the world how good they were. This wasn't a team of stiffs by any means. There were quality veterans who often did the dirty work in the stuff that MATTERED why Anthony basked in the glow of his scoring totals. And, these guys had a chip on their shoulder.

The newcomers from the Knicks were also insulted by the coverage. They weren't throw-ins. They knew how to play and wanted to let that be known as soon as possible.

*Given what became a fired up group of starters, AND a fired up bench, Denver has literally run roughshod over the league since the trade. They haven't won every game (they're 14-4 since the All-Star Break). But, when they win, they win by monster scores because they're getting 48 minutes of intensity.

This is a BIG story in the NBA, and could continue to be a big story in the playoffs. But, you know what? That 14-4 record for Denver pales in comparison to the 17-1 mark the Lakers have put up since the Break!

*The Los Angeles Lakers basically treaded water during the first half of the season. This collection of talent is so good that they can still post a strong record while treading water. They had some high profile TV losses that had some pundits scratching their heads. Jerry West called them out for lack of hustle (who hustles when treading water?). Many were wondering if the team had peaked last year, and now the suddenly resurgent San Antonio Spurs were ready to take over the West.

*BOOM! After the All-Star Break, the Lakers kicked things up a notch and found their playoff form. They started hustling after loose balls again. Ron Artest has aligned his attention-span issues with the needs of the team again. Andrew Bynum is healthy, and these guys have SCARY length inside when Bynum can contribute.

We're almost at the point now where you can pencil the Lakers in as the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year. They control their own destiny for the #1 seed now. If the Lakers win out, they'll steal the top spot from the Spurs (because winning out would mean beating the Spurs at Staples Center on April 12). When they're playing this well, nobody in the West can touch them.

Or, maybe, today's the day where we learn that the Denver Nuggets can touch them!

Here's how the teams playing the best ball in the West lately stack up in some important stats.

OFFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
Denver: 1st in the league
LA Lakers: 4th in the league

Denver didn't lose a step on offense when Carmelo left. They had plenty of ways to take up the slack, and plenty of players motivated to take up the slack. The Lakers, even with what seemed like lethargic play on too many occasions, still rank fourth in points per possession. This is harder to see in raw numbers because the Lakers have slowed down. Don't get the idea from raw averages that Denver has a MUCH better offense than the Lakers. Denver plays very fast. The Lakers have slowed down to protect their bodies. When you adjust for pace, Denver is slightly better than the Lakers on offense.

DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY
LA Lakers: 7th in the league
Denver: 17th in the league

This is a little misleading because both teams have picked up the pace recently. As you probably know, Anthony is a HORRIBLE defender. Denver has been amongst the NBA's best on a per-possession basis since the trade. The Lakers really emphasize defense once they get serious. We'll give the edge to the Lakers because of their length and experience. Just be aware going forward that Denver is much better than league average right now...and the Lakers are again an elite defensive team.

REBOUND RATE
LA Lakers: 3rd in the league
Denver: 10th in the league

We're always saying that defense and rebounding wins championships. The Lakers deserve more credit for being a defense and rebounding team. We've shown you this over the years right here in the NOTEBOOK in our playoff discussions. Everybody wants to talk about Kobe. Everybody wants to say that Pau Gasol is soft. These guys defend and rebound like warriors. Denver grades out well in a lot of stats, and should never have been thought of as a one-man team. It's amazing how dumb the mainstream media is sometimes!

TURNOVER RATE
LA Lakers: 3rd in the league
Denver: 11th in the league

The Lakers don't get much credit for playing clean basketball. But, this is a veteran team that generally does a very good job of treasuring possessions. Ron Artest has his moments. Kobe can get turnover prone when he's not getting calls because he tends to force things. Overall though, this is a strength that always puts them in good stead in big games. Denver will have an edge on much of the league, but not on the Lakers.

That brings us to today's game. A true champion against a potential up-and-comer. And, possibly, a playoff preview.

*If the Lakers do get the #1 seed, and Denver can defeat dangerous Oklahoma City in a 4-5 matchup in the first round (what a WAR that's going to be!), then Nuggets/Lakers will be a second round matchup.

*If the Lakers settle for the #2 seed, Denver might still face them by getting past Oklahoma City and the winner of the 1-8 round (likely San Antonio). No Nuggets fans should get delusions of grandeur. But, recent form makes it clear that's far from a pipe dream. If the Spurs do get the #1 spot, they're going to have their hands full with Denver or Oklahoma City in the second round.

*Even if Denver's not destined to go deep this year, the Lakers probably are. You'll be handicapping Los Angeles Lakers games vs. playoff caliber opposition until mid June. You might as well get started now! This game will be part of our All-Day TV package on Sunday, sandwiched by Phoenix-San Antonio at 1 ET and ESPN's prime-time baseball action with San Francisco-Los Angeles. Click here to get on board.

Actually, many of you are starting your NBA efforts now. You were too busy with college and pro football in the earlier stages of the season. Then, college basketball grabbed your fancy. Now that March and its MADNESS is behind you, and there's only one college game left, you're thinking about the NBA. You're gearing up for the coming playoffs and you want to keep the money rolling in.

The best way to do that is to link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK. He's a man for all seasons thanks to NETWORK'S exclusive TEAM HANDICAPPING approach. Our clients have been winning all season long...and the softness of recent lines suggest the best is yet to come!

You can pay for the rest of the season right now and enjoy big savings. Or, try things out on a day-by-day basis to test the waters. Game day releases are available for credit card purchase a few hours before tip off. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Today's NBA highlights:
Phoenix at San Antonio on ABC
Denver at the LA Lakers on ABC
Cleveland at New York (can Knicks finally beat the Cavs?!)
Detroit at Boston
Atlanta at Houston
Dallas at Portland on the NBA Network

If you'd like even more action, we have BASEBALL for you too. The busy Sunday schedule includes series finales in Padres/Cardinals, Giants/Dodgers on ESPN in prime time, Tigers/Yankees, and Red Sox/Rangers.

Back tomorrow to preview the National Championship game in college hoops. Build your bankrolls today with another SUPER SUNDAY from JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

This article is part of the VSM MASTERS SERIES presented by VegasSportsMasters.com and JimHurley.com. For more information on JIM HURLEY'S handicapping packages, call 1-800-323-4453.

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