On Tap: The Denver Nuggets

 —  January 2, 2005

It was a shrewd move by Kiki Vandeweghe — fire the coach to spark the team, but time it to make sure the interim coach starts his first game at the same time your star player returns from injury. It worked — Denver beat a hot Sixer team to break a five-game losing streak behind 24 points from Carmelo Anthony.

Normally, I’d be rooting for Michael Cooper to keep that going, but not so much tonight. This game should be a fun cap to a drink-off-the-hangover weekend in what could be a high-scoring game at Staples.

Why high scoring? Well, a few reasons.

First, these teams’ defensive weaknesses line up with the other team’s offensive strengths. Kobe has taken it upon himself to score more the last few games, and now runs into a team that has had trouble stopping the two guard (16.6 oPER). If Kobe decides to pass, the position the Nuggets have the most trouble stopping is the four, so this is another chance for Lamar Odom to put up big numbers.

On the flip side, the only position the Nuggets have been getting well above-average offensive production is at the point, where Andre Miller has a PER of 17.7. And the Lakers have been taken apart this season by far lesser points than Miller. Then, with Carmelo back and healthy you can expect him to get plenty of shots, and the three is the position where the Lakers have played the weakest defense this season (18.0 oPER). Which is really saying something.

One key for the Lakers will be taking care of the ball — Denver has played a high-risk brand of defense this season that has left teams shooting well against them (eFG% of 49.3%, in the bottom five of the league), but creating 17.3 turnovers per game (forth best in the league). The Lakers, on the other hand, have turnover issues. If the Lakers can hold on to the ball, they should be able to get good shots.

Denver, offensively, has been lost since Voshon Lenard tore his ACL and took the only consistent outside shot on the team into rehab with him. The Nuggets have a sad eFG% of 39.8% on jump shots. They count on the slashing style of Miller and Anthony, but it hasn’t been efficient — they average just 98.6 points per 100 possessions (6.8 less than the Lakers).

The Lakers catch a break because this is a banged-up Nugget team. Kenyon Martin (highest PER on the team at 17.89) has missed a couple, then Marcus Camby played only nine minutes two nights ago, leaving with a strained back. The Lakers poor defensive play inside (Mihm can only do so much) would be something else for Denver to exploit, if they were healthy.

It sounds like a cliché, but whichever squad plays better defense tonight — breaking the mold of much of the rest of this season — will win this game. The Lakers need to force the Nuggets to shoot from the outside, the Nuggets need to get a hand in a shooter’s face. With it looking like these two teams could end up fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the West, this is one of those January games that could mean a lot in April.