Lakers & Nuggets in San Diego

DJ MbengaGenerally, the only time NBA teams would see one anther in consecutive games is in the midst of a playoff series, and not without a day off in between.

Yet this is the preseason, and the Lakers are set to face off against their Western Conference Finals opponent on back-to-back nights, the second taking place Friday night in San Diego at 7:30 p.m. on the heels of a 106-89 Lakers victory over Denver on Thursday in Anaheim.

Perhaps the most interesting element of preseason basketball for a team that already has its ducks in order (i.e. returning nearly an entire championship team with one change) comes on the medical report, which has been a bit more detailed than most would like to see.

After all, a large part of L.A.’s success comes thanks to its trio of skilled big men – Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom – all of whom have missed at least a game in the preseason. Bynum and Gasol both were absent from Thursday night’s game, and Gasol will miss the San Diego affair as well while Bynum is a game-time decision*. Odom, however, not only returned from a two-game absence caused by a bruised shin, but nailed five three-pointers … in the first half … in Anaheim.
*For details, click here.

Although Odom’s career high in a regular season game is four threes, Kobe Bryant wasn’t surprised.

“He’s improved his shooting, it’s something he’s worked on diligently to become a more consistent shooter,” said Bryant after the game. “It’s not something that surprises me, because he was a big shooter for us in the playoffs last year and I have no doubt he’ll continue to get better.”

So while Odom appears good to go, the questions remain about Bynum and Gasol … But the Lakers certainly don’t seem worried.

“Oh they’ll be fine,” said Bryant. “I’m sure. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to linger or anything like that, I think they’ll be fine.”

Phil Jackson said more than once that he’s “not worried,” while the third center on L.A.’s depth chart, D.J. Mbenga, also said that he expects both Bynum and Gasol to be there when it counts. That, of course, didn’t keep Mbenga from swatting seven shots in an impressive 26 minutes of playing time that also produced eight points, two rebounds and two assists against Denver.

While Jackson said that Denver’s return trip from China – where the played two preseason games – probably threw off their rhythm, it was impressive nonetheless that the Lakers handled the Nuggets so handily despite the absence of 14-feet of talent. Another reason? The play of Ron Artest, who has found ways to contribute despite not taking many shots (2-for-7), throwing five assists, grabbing three boards, snatching a steal and blocking a shot while – most importantly – playing tough defense on Carmelo Anthony, something Bryant had to do often in the playoffs.

Bryant, in turn, is very pleased about how well Artest has fit in with the champs.

“It’s been effortless,” said the Finals MVP. “He’s really blended in extremely well. It’s been a seamless transition.”

The other element about which Bryant and Jackson can be happy is the solid play of a hungry bench throughout the preseason. Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell, Adam Morrison, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic and a newly-returned Luke Walton (back) have each contributed in a notable way, combining for 49 points, 19 rebounds and 15 assists on Thursday evening. In fact, even undrafted rookie Tony Gaffney has found ways to be productive in his limited minutes.

It’s all added up to a 6-1 preseason record for the Lakers, who you can watch on ESPN at 7:30 P.M. or listen to on L.A.’s new radio partner, 710 ESPN.

Finally, to make sure you’re prepared for the regular season opener on Tuesday just as the team is, spend some time going through our player-by-player Season Preview, which feature a summary of last season, commentary on each Laker from assistant coach Jim Cleamons and a look at outstanding numberes and statistics.

CLICK HERE to check it out.