Six games in and the Los Angeles Lakers have shot their own hopes of making it to the second round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs in the foot. Repeatedly.
A series that looked like a cake walk has turned into a seven-game battle to the death. Although they have yet to be eliminated by the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers did cough up a two-game lead and are one loss away from being spectators for the remainder of the post-season.
So what’s going to be the X-factor in Game 7 that gets the Lakers over the hump and past the Nuggets in what has turned into a nightmarish series?
Metta World Peace, that’s what.
Returning from a seven-game suspension stemming from the crushing elbow that he delivered to James Harden’s head, World Peace will be ready to go after watching the Lakers’ first six post-season bouts against the Nuggets from afar.
Although he hasn’t seen the court in over three weeks, stepping in and being the Lakers’ knight in shining armor shouldn’t be too big a burden to bear for World Peace. A 12-year NBA veteran and player who has already savored the sweet taste of success, there’s little lingering doubt that he’ll be ready to give the Nuggets all the Metta they can handle.
What World Peace brings to the table is tenacity, physicality and the veteran presence that Pau Gasol abandoned in Game 6. He may be mistake-prone at times and has a tendency to let his emotions get the best of him (just ask Harden), but World Peace will undoubtedly inject the Lakers lineup with the hustle that everyone except Bryant had left at the bottom of their gym bags on Thursday.
Remember how World Peace was putting on one awesome display after another in April? Throughout that month, he averaged 14.1 points per game, notched four 3+ steal outings and had a monster performance against the San Antonio Spurs. Before his ejection and ensuing suspension, World Peace was playing with relentless determination and a hard-nosed attitude that was daring his teammates to match his intensity.
Apart from the boost he provides in the morale department, World Peace will also bring shut-down defense to the court, something that the Lakers have been miserably missing since his suspension. The 2004 Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-Defensive First Teamer provides them with the versatility and hustle at that end of the court that no other Laker can offer. He’s consistently counted on to nullify the opposing team’s offensive dynamo, which should also be the case against the Nuggets.
Throughout their past two losses, the Lakers defense has been miserable and World Peace will immediately upgrade that aspect of their game. World Peace knows his role as a defensive stud for the Lakers and will certainly be eager to give the Nuggets’ shooters headaches in Game 7.
Although not his strong suit over the last couple of seasons, World Peace can occasionally be a strong contributor on offense as well. Chiming in with a random three-point dagger or emphatic dunk, World Peace has a knack for sparking the Lakers offense at key moments in the game. He’s no Kobe, but he’s also no stranger to putting points on the board.
The final important facet of World Peace’s return is that it sends Devin Ebanks back to where he belongs: the bench. Throughout the series, Ebanks has averaged 5.5 points per game and has been playing matador with Nuggets small forward Danilo Gallinari on defense. Even when Ebanks was taking a breather, his backup Matt Barnes was busy being just as ineffective. With Ebanks back on the bench and World Peace reinserted into the starting lineup, the Lakers’ small forward spot doesn’t seem like such a liability. Plus, the rest of the starters are just more cohesive when World Peace is on the court.
Put simply, World Peace’s presence should be just what the Lakers need to avoid another meltdown like the one that evened the series at three games apiece on Thursday.
We’ve all seen the type of game-changer that World Peace can be when he’s playing with the passion that made the baller formerly known as Ron Artest such a feared competitor. It’s undeniable that, when at his best, World Peace can be the difference between defeat and victory. So what better time for him to re-emerge as Bryant’s right-hand man?
The Lakers’ last two games have made Bryant sick to his stomach (literally), but a healthy dose of World Peace should help alleviate the woes that have kept the purple and gold from booking their trip to the second round.
It’s “do-or-die” time for the Lakers; the perfect time for a little World Peace.