A familiar postseason rivalry will be renewed in Southern California Sunday when the Denver Nuggets open up their Western Conference quarterfinals series with the Pacific Division-champion Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.
Denver gained the sixth seed on the final night of the regular season and will be facing the Lakers in the playoffs for the third time in five years. In fact, the Nuggets and LA have met on five different occasions (1979, 1985, 1987, 2008, 2009) with the Lakers advancing each time, most recently defeating Denver 4-2 in the 2009 Western Conference Finals en route to the franchise's 15th NBA title.
Superstar Kobe Bryant, who was sidelined for several games this month due to a bruised left shin, is trying to lead the Lakers to a third championship in four years. Los Angeles punched its ticket to the postseason for a seventh straight year and are Pacific Division champions in each of the last five seasons.
Los Angeles, which won the NBA title in both 2008-09 and 2009-10, defeated the New Orleans Hornets in six games to kick off last year's playoffs before swept out of the postseason at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Mavericks in round two.
That left a sour taste in the mouths of the proud Lakers. Bryant will lead a determined bunch that includes newcomer Ramon Sessions and big men Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Defensive stopper Metta World Peace, however, 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 in the regular season finale on Thursday.
Devin Ebanks is expected to start in World Peace's place, with the defensive- minded Matt Barnes coming off the bench despite a sprained right ankle.
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 17th title.
"You want to be as healthy as possible at this point, especially going into the postseason," said first-year Lakers coach Mike Brown, who replaced 11-time champion Phil Jackson. "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."
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 big man 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."
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).