Lakers-Nuggets Preview

Struggling down the stretch, the Los Angeles Lakers would like
to get Andrew Bynum back on the court before the playoffs. Coach
Phil Jackson said that’s probably not going to happen.

Trying again to wrap up the top seed in the Western Conference,
the Lakers are not expected to have Bynum available Thursday night
against the Denver Nuggets.

The Lakers (55-22) have split their last eight games without
Bynum, who’s out due to a strained Achilles’ tendon. He underwent
another MRI Monday that revealed no tear, but Jackson said the
center continues to experience discomfort some exercise.

“I’m not holding my breath on a timetable,” Jackson said
Tuesday. “Obviously, we’d like to have him play a couple games at
the end of the (regular) season, but this morning I told him if
that’s not possible, we’ll take whatever we can get in the playoffs
at that time.”

Now in his fifth season, the 22-year-old Bynum is averaging a
career-high 15.0 points in 65 games, and his absence has certainly
been felt – the Lakers have scored 94.3 points over the last eight
games, down from 102.1 points over the first 69 contests.

They shot 40.7 percent in a 100-81 home loss to San Antonio on
Sunday. Pau Gasol scored a season-high 32 points and Kobe Bryant
added 22, but the Lakers failed to clinch the No. 1 seed in the
West and home-court advantage through the NBA finals, which went to
Cleveland.

Gasol said the Lakers need to recognize what they did wrong
while trying to end the regular season on a positive note.

“We should be just aware, aware of what the possibilities are
when we don’t play as well, when we have a couple mistakes that we
shouldn’t have,” he said. “We want to end these last five games on
a good note so we feel good about ourselves going into the
playoffs, which is important.”

Los Angeles needs to win its last five games to have consecutive
60-win seasons for the first time since doing so in four straight
seasons starting in 1984-85.

Bryant also will try to bounce back after struggling over the
last two games. He was 8 of 24 from the field against San Antonio,
going scoreless in the third quarter, after going 5 of 23 and
finishing with 25 points in a 106-92 win over Utah on Friday.

He was held to 14 points on 3-of-17 shooting in a 95-89 victory
over the Nuggets on Feb. 28. The Lakers had lost the previous two
games with Denver, including 105-79 at the Pepsi Center in November
– the largest margin of defeat this season.

Denver (51-27), meanwhile, has stayed competitive for the No. 2
seed in the West by winning three straight after a 1-5 slide and
battled for a 98-94 win over Oklahoma City on Wednesday. Chauncey
Billups scored 31 points and Carmelo Anthony overcame an injury to
add 24, helping Denver rally from a 13-point deficit.

The Nuggets have held their last three opponents to 92.0 points
after allowing 105.3 over the previous six. They didn’t give up a
basket to the Thunder in the final nine minutes.

Billups scored 15 in the fourth quarter, hitting two free throws
that put the Nuggets ahead 96-94 with 52.7 seconds left. They
needed that surge as Anthony admitted he wasn’t 100 percent after
briefly losing consciousness when he rammed head-first into Kevin
Durant in the third quarter.

Anthony, who’s third in the NBA with 28.4 points per game,
played in the fourth.

“I think it was just guts in this game,” Billups said. “We
rebounded, we got the tough ones, we got the loose balls a lot of
times. That’s really what prevailed in this game.”