Through three exhibition games, it’s mostly been all quiet on the western front for the Lakers. Sure, there’s the whole issue of offensive/defensive continuity, Bynum’s wavering injury status, Kobe’s continuing rehab, the integration of five new players and the expected post-championship malaise. Wednesday night’s promising 98-95 win against the Kings showed that the forum blue and gold are back to business, though. They’ll get another nice tune-up tonight against a team in the Denver Nuggets, whom, when healthy and focused, are still considered a threat for the number two seed in the Western Conference. Here are five things to look for tonight in the Lakers return to the site where they won their sixteenth title nearly four months ago to the day.
1) The Melodrama continues in Denver, but Anthony remains the most valuable part of a competitive Nuggets team for the time being. The small forward has stuck to his guns through three preseason games so far, refusing to publicly state that he’d like a trade—instead channeling his energy onto the basketball court. He’s averaging over 24 points so far in the pre-season, including a near triple-double against the Clippers on Thursday with 30 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists. For the slimmed down Ron Artest and newcomer Matt Barnes, tonight’s matchup against Melo represents their first real test against an elite small forward and our first look at what just how potent the defensive duo could be at limiting the Anthony’s, Durant’s and James’ of the league.
2) Will this be the game where Kobe’s production finally matches what appears to be his increasingly improved mobility? Even after his poor 2-10 shooting night against Sacramento, Bryant looked like he actually had his legs under him for the first time this preseason. Coach Jackson says he’ll likely play #24 for about half of the game tonight, which should give us an extended look at exactly where the 2010 Finals MVP stands with 10 games left ’til the season opener. Again, at this early juncture of the season, it’s still more about quality over quantity for Kobe…not that anyone would mind a 20+ point performance on good shooting numbers just to give us a glimpse of what we have to look forward to once the Mamba is back to 100%.
3) According to Jackson, he plans to play the starters heavy minutes tonight against Denver, before giving the bench more burn in tomorrow’s Shootout finale. The starting unit played well in the first eight minutes against the Kings on Wednesday, quickly building a 23-17 before Matt Barnes checked in at about the four minute marker of the first quarter. More than building an early lead, though, they actually began to look like the fivesome who who was largely responsible for winning back-to-back titles. Can they maintain that same rhythm in consecutive games and against a superior Nuggets team?
4) Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen and Al Harrington are all out tonight, leaving a gaping hole in the Nuggets front court that Odom and Gasol should be able to exploit. Jackson singled out his favorite whipping boy, Pau, even after what looked like a successful 18 point, 12 rebound effort against the Kings. Regardless of whether he turned a deaf ear to Phil’s insinuations that he was “still on vacation,” look for Gasol to assert himself early and often tonight.
5) Ty Lawson and Aaron Afflalo started in the backcourt for the Nuggets on Thursday against the Clips, with the latter notching an impressive 27 points and nine rebounds. Small, athletic guards like Lawson and Afflalo have been met with little duress from Lakers defenders in recent years, but that’s precisely why they brought in a proven defender like Steve Blake to hopefully fill some of that void. L.A. will be without Vujacic tonight, so the onus on stopping the Nuggets guards may also fall onto Barnes’ and even Devin Ebanks’ shoulders.
WHERE YOU CAN WATCH: 7:30 p.m. local time on FS West, NBATV and ESPN Radio 710 am.