Lakers/Nuggets Preview

Kurt —  April 19, 2008

The thing that makes me the most nervous about this series is the same thing that gives me the most confidence.

No doubt there is a lot of talent on the Nuggets roster — two big stars in Iverson and Anthony, nice group of role players led Camby, Linas Kleiza, J.R. Smith and others.

But for a couple of years now they have never put it together and become the team they should be. On one hand it makes me nervous, because if they could put it together for seven games in a row they would be difficult to beat. But, what gives me confidence is that they have never done that for an extended stretch. Teams don’t just find that in the playoffs when they haven’t done it during the season.

The Nuggets are inconsistent because they are not a disciplined group of players (I don’t intend that as a knock on coach George Karl, I think it’s more the hand he’s dealt). ESPN.com’s David Thorpe described the Nuggets as looking like an AAU team, and I think that’s accurate — a lot of ego, a lot of guys who can shoot you into a game or right out of it. (Iverson is the king of that, when the pressure is on he takes on more and more of the offense, throwing off any balance.)

And discipline is the key for the Lakers — if they play their game, if they run the offense, keep the tempo under control and focus on defense and boards, they will win. The first step in controlling the Nuggets offense is to make them work on defense and slow the tempo there. The Lakers have to control the ball and not turn it over, turnovers fuel the Nuggets running (remember the first quarter of the first meeting this season). The Nuggets will gamble a lot on defense, trying to create steals, the Lakers should be able to exploit that with crisp passing. Bottom line, the Lakers need to impose their style on this series, not let Denver turn it into a run-and-fun shootout. At points this year the Lakers have gotten sucked into that style, they should run but only when it is a good spot — pull out of it when the numbers aren’t there. Slow the pace down.

On offense, the Lakers should be able to score. Anthony Carter cannot handle Kobe, help him in meetings this year the Nuggets trapped and doubled him quickly. When that happens Fisher and Radmanovic should get good looks, Kobe has shown trust in this group of teammates and that needs to continue. I expect (as Jeremy said in his view from the Nuggets side) that they will count on JR Smith to spend some time on Kobe. That said, I still think Kobe can have a lot of 20 point, 10 assist games in this series that will be a big problem for the Nuggets.

Pau Gasol also will be a big problem because of his range. The Nuggets pressure the ball and try to jump passing lanes, and they can get away with that in part because Camby stays in the paint and covers up those mistakes. I expect the Lakers will use Pau and his 18-foot jumper to pull Camby out of the lane. The result should be good games for Pau and some open layups for slashers and cutters in the Lakers offense.

Lamar Odom has been great at making things happen without plays being called directly for him. He should be big in this series – the position the Nuggets defend the worst is the four, they give up an average of 22 and 12 out of that spot nightly. Odom should be able to have a couple big games.

One other area the Lakers had a big advantage this season is off the bench – the Lakers have extended leads with their bench on the floor. The one key for the bench will be slowing JR Smith, who may be the definition of a streaky shooter. He is the best player they have off the bench, he (and Kleiza) have a better pure +/- number than any of the starters save Iverson. The Lakers need to not let those two gain any confidence.

One final note, expect Denver to try some zone, they have had success with a 1-2-2 lately (as Darius mentioned in the comments). The Lakers need to get the ball inside to Pau on that then let him kick out to the open guy. Even before Pau the Lakers had good success against the Nuggets zone, in part because they have the shooters to shoot over the top of it.

On defense, rule one (and two and three) is get back in transition. The Nuggets will run at every opportunity, the Lakers simply cannot give up a lot of easy baskets. The Lakers have to follow guys who leak out and simply be aware of this at all times.

The tempo thing for the Nuggets though is not just about fast breaks – they run drag (transition or early in the clock) pick and rolls, letting Iverson score and create. The Nuggets take 45% of their shots in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock and shoot 55% (eFG%) on those. Force them to wait 10-15 seconds (another 29% of their shots) and their shooting falls to 48.4%. Now, that 48% still isn’t bad, but the point is simple, the Lakers need to make those early in the clock shots hard ones.

That starts by not letting Iverson into the lane – which is easier said than done as he is lightning quick. Lakers bigs need to take away Iverson’s direct route to the hoop on the pick and roll, both by showing out and having good rotations behind that. Laker PGs should go under the pick and play off him. The goal is to make Iverson a jump shooter – AI shoots 57.8% inside but 44.9% on jumpers. Again, not a bad number but lower than when he gets into the paint. Also from the easier said than done column – try not to foul AI. He draws fouls on 17.1% of his attempts and he’s a good free throw shooter, the Lakers need to keep him of the stripe.

I expect Odom will get the Carmelo Anthony assignment, and Odom has length and athleticism to give Anthony some trouble. Like AI, there really is no stopping him, just slowing him, making him less efficient. And like AI you need to make him jump shooter – he shoots 42.6% on jumpers and 65.2% inside. That means making Melo give up position for possession push him off that mid-block spot he likes. Odom, who has done great work on the boards, needs to keep Melo off them.

With the other Nuggets, the Lakers just need to be aware of who is where. You can’t sag off Kleiza or Smith at the three-point line. As Darius mentioned in the comments, Camby can hurt you on the baseline extended and at the top of the key, in those spots you need to close out on him. Really, the only guy who really scares me is the explosive Smith – he is going to have one big game in this series, he is too good not to. They key is making sure he does not have three or four.

Bottom line, the goal is to make the Nuggets a little uncomfortable, because when that happens is when guys start really trying to do too much individually for them. And, you end up with AI going 6 for 26 or whatever. And with the Lakers offense, that’s all they need.

This season the Nuggets have won a lot of games, but won only 39% of their games against the top net scoring teams in the league. If you can score with them, they melt. And the Lakers can and should score plenty, which is why I see them winning in five.

UPDATE: As we should have expected, the official Lakers site has a lot of great stuff up, including a video interview with Jim Cleamons. Also, check out the Courtside Connection, where the scouting report for the series is up — it has video evidence of some of the Nuggets favorite plays. For example, they like to run the pick-and-roll with AI and Melo, but they run it below the foul line. Check out the video.

Kurt

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29 responses to Lakers/Nuggets Preview

  1. One of the quirks of the Nuggets is that the past few seasons ended w/them on a roll and then they fell apart in the Playoffs.

  2. Kurt,

    In the LA Times this morning they indicated that VladRad would be defending ‘Melo.

  3. 2. I missed that, thanks. I expected VladRad would get some time on him, but that ultimately it would fall to Odom. Both are long and fairly strong, but Radman is not a great defender (not as bad as his rep, but not great). We’ll see, I think you see who is effective and go with it. If Radman is effective on him, well, that’s a big plus.

  4. I just added this as an update, but check out the playoff video and great stuff at the official Lakers site:

    http://www.nba.com/lakers/news/08playoffcentral.html

  5. It’s Smith that scares the crap out of me too. There’s no excuse for this series to last longer than 5 games unless the Lakers let Smith go off multiple times.

  6. Warren Wee Lim April 19, 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Kurt, I believe its lightning quick.

    Drray, I still think its Lamar covering Melo. While Kmart can actually overpower Vlad, I think Vlad can dare him to shoot that 15-ftr which we all love him to shoot. But like Kobe, Lamar and Vlad will be giving Melo some different looks as will Luke. Both players have varying lateral movements and strengths so we will try to throw of Melo.

  7. As relatively useless as Luke Walton has been this season, I remember someone on this site (in the comments) saying that in an earlier game, Luke was actually rather effective against Melo. Melo struggles a bit more against bigger and stronger defensive players, and although Luke’s lateral quickness is nothing to boast about, he might be able to give Melo some trouble off the bench.

    (I can’t verify whether or not Luke really did play solid D against Melo–I don’t get any local LA channels).

  8. I just finished watching the Jazz/Houston game and I really, really don’t like having them in our bracket. Deron Williams is going to make mincemeat of our PGs – assuming we get through Denver. They have beaten most of the really good teams on the other team’s home court and their road record is not so bad in 2008. This is a really tough team folks.

  9. I like Odom on Kmart b/c of the rebounding aspect. Rebounding is definitely key and we can’t give up too many offensive rebounds to a hyperactive Kmart.

    Vlade can’t guard Carmelo on his own, and is going to require help when Carmelo is on the low block. He has a great jab step and first step, which allows him to either take a quick jumper or go for a baseline drive. I’m sure the Lakers know his tendencies and try to take away his go to moves. All the while rotating and getting back to contest 3 pointers from J.R. Smith and Kleiza.

    Be physical, keep the intensity up, and keep a deliberate tempo.

  10. (8) Craig, I didn’t see the game, but I’ve read Hollinger. I also remember how they played in the playoffs last year. I even remember Derek Fisher’s incredible “return from New York in the second half” three pointer that may have won a critical game for the Jazz.

    They’re tough.

    They only lost 4 games at home–but I remember one that they lost to the Lakers. Contrary to your comment, their “away” record is obviously less than compelling.

    Last year they got one from Houston and then held home court to win the series. History might repeat itself here.

    If the Lakers get to round two and face the Jazz, they’ll play Utah much like they played the Hornets. The Lakers will both have home court advantage and confidence that they can win in Salt Lake City.

  11. Warren Wee Lim April 20, 2008 at 1:16 am

    I agree drray, I am quite confident about beating Utah (but I must say it will by no means be easy) and we might have to need Drew back for this. Remember that we had Drew in those wins and I don’t think Utah has enough big warm bodies to throw at us – esp if the Fabulous Frontcourt Four is in Full Force. FFF FF.

  12. Surprised I’m the first to make this observation with regards to the Utah comment, but who else would you want to face of the second rounders? I know we are not there yet but I’m in love with Utah over any of Dallas, NO, Spurs or Suns. I like how we much up against Utah and as always who’s gonna guard Kobe on that team?

  13. Hi Warren,

    I will be amazed if we see Andrew this playoffs.

    On the up side, he has an injury that, when properly healed, may not impact his career. On the downside, if his “trick knee” recurs before fully healing, it may never stabilize, and it would recur over and over again–ruining his career. I’d hate to be the one to recommend that he play under those circumstances.

    Besides, he hasn’t played in a live game for a long time. He could be out of shape. If he comes back at all, it will be with the “bench mob” to rest Gasol. Even in that role, he may do more harm than good.

    I’d love to be proven wrong, but I presently feel that Andrew is hope for the future–not the playoffs.

  14. I also agree that having Utah in our bracket is not so bad. Its not that anybody is going to be easy out west, but did you watch the Spurs and Suns game, having either of those teams in our bracket wouldn’t make things any easier. I really hope that they wear each other out.

    However I would love to see a Kobe Shaq reunion in the Western finals, I think that would be a great series to watch as a fan.

    Maybe we won’t even have to face Utah if Houston can pull out the win, that would be great … or maybe not, Houston is somewhat scary as well … everyone is scary I don’t care who we face in round 2 I just hope we play our game and we can beat anyone.

  15. What will the Nuggets do to try to stop the Lakers?

    1. Lots of buzz on the net that the Nuggs are practicing a box and one on Kobe. I’m not concerned about this. Alot depends on who that one is. Battier and Bowen maybe but not Carter or Smith. Also a help that comes from the zone should be easy for Kobe to split. Besides, this is the NBA with a defensive 3 rule and not the college. A box and 1 is extremely difficult to execute.

    2. I expect to see a lot of high traps on Kobe. This is the one scheme that has been reasonably successful and almost every opponent has tried it in the last few weeks of the season.

    So far the Laker’s response is for Kobe to pass out of it to a safety valve and try to reload the triangle. I would like to see Phil actually design a few plays to take advantage of the high trap. The defense is in a highly vulnerable state here with two defenders out near the half court line. A quick hitting play such as flashing Lamar to the top of the key to receive Kobe’s pass whilst the guard simultaneously back cuts Pau’s man should free Pau up for a an easy 2 off a Lamar assist. Basically, I’d like to see the Lakers attack the high trap than just adjust to it.

    3. The most effective defensive scheme might be the “Let Kobe gets his and stop the rest” tactic. The team needs to avoid what happened to them vs Memphis where Kobe went off in the 1st two quarters and the rest of the team never got into a rhythm. What does Kobe do in the 1st when he doesn’t want to shoot much (and the entire NBA knows that this is his m.o.) but the defense is giving him the shot?

    He has to resist the temptation to stay on the perimeter but attack the basket and set up his teammates this way.

    If Kobe penetrates and the rest of the Lakers remember that in Camby and Martin, the Nuggs have 2 block happy defenders (pump fake!) the Nuggs bigs can get into serious foul trouble.

    With all this talk about AI’s penetration and Smith’s shooting. They really don’t concern me. Unlike Paul, AI doesn’t penetrate to set up his guys but to get his. Smith is streaky and I expect Sasha to take him out of his game on the road.

    But the Nuggets have Melo on the right block. When he faces up while preserving his dribble. Nobody can stop him if his J is on. Fortunately, in AI, the Nuggets have a shooter who will take possessions away from Melo. Good.

    Quick points.

    Smith: much better since Jan
    Kleiza: slightly worse since Jan
    Najera: just as energetic but shooting seems to have tapered off
    Camby: run Fisher at him on his straigh ahead 18 footer. Doesn’t pass once in a shooting motion and since the shooting motion takes about 2 minutes, you have a chance to contest it.
    Martin: healthier than Jan. He can hit the 15 foot j on the baseline now and then whereas he was hopeless before. Must put a body on him to prevent the offensive board. (But he is the only one to worry about).

  16. I like Vlad starting off on Melo. We don’t want Lamar to get in foul trouble, and Melo is gonna get his pts anyway. We need to limit eveyone else. and Lamar needs to be near the hoop to rebound. That said, if the game is close, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on Melo late in the game.

  17. drrayeye,
    The one statistic not mentioned was that Utah’s away record is getting better as the year progresses (progressed??). We give the Lakers credit for learning and improving as the year went on. The Jazz are the 4th youngest team in the NBA – yeah that is true – and we should also give them credit for learning during the year. Also, it doesn’t hurt that their young players went to the WCF last year.

    I am a Laker fan and want them to win. I just don’t want readers here to take this team too lightly. This is going to be a war.

  18. Re Utah,
    They had second best record in NBA after Jan 1.(Hou top record,mainly because of 22 game streak.) They beat most of the West Playoff teams and Boston on the road during 2008. They won Game 7 against Hou last yr on road,swept hot GS last yr,and won on the road yesterday. It’s not like they were truly rank on the toad,they won @ 40% of the time(same as Mavs and Nuggets.)
    Houston is going to lose(OUCH!)because the Rocket bigs can’t finish inside and are getting pounded on the glass. Alston is out and he quickly swung the ball along perimeter which gets open looks against Utah on side away from McGrady.Mcgrady’s bad shoulder has messed his stroke and he can’t get going from outside and they pack the lane to stop his drives.
    Utah will be very tough for LA,very tough.They are intensely physical and use all the cheap tricks-holding jerseys,shots to ribs,etc-very effectively.Very old school,even tho they are a pretty young team.
    However,LA will have some advantages Hou doesn’t.Lamar and Gasol have long arms,so they will gather in the long rebounds that are just out of reach of Rockets players.If you watch any of the series you’ll note Luther Head is able to drive on Utah fairly easily.W/all the focus on T-Mac(Kobe) the opposite side opens up for quick penetration-and Lamar can finish,Fish can,or at least draw fouls,and Farmar may find holes to use.Once the backside opens up,pressure on Kobe decreases,not to mention Gasol is able to convert inside looks.(And let’s not forget Kobe can shoot w/a decent % from outside.)It would be a tough series,but so long as the Lakers don’t let the Jazz mentally mess them up,LA should win.

  19. I agree about Utah being a War. Anytime your team has Deron and Booze, it will be a war. Those 2 players are not necessarily trigger-happy egomaniacs. They are calm, collected and controlled offensive juggernauts that play within the system. Much more so under Sloan.

    Add here AK who is long and physical, Okur who can draw Pau out to the perimeter and Korver who can space the floor, that by all means is no pushover.

    Their bench include the bruiser Paul Millsap, the vet Matt Harpring (who has survived Sloan for many years), the rather ok Jason Hart, and the quick and athletic, high-leaping Ronnie Brewer.

    I may be looking past Denver but I’m excited to see the Lakers face this Utah team.

  20. ESPN’s Scouts Inc. seems to think Denver is a good defensuvw team.

  21. I hope Phil is doing a good job about keeping the Lakers focused on the Nuggets and not the next round, they should leave that to the fans. Because if they are looking ahead they will lose — we seem to be thinking Denver is chopped liver, but they won 50 games and are a good team. I think these games are going to be closer than people think (I expect just one LA blowout win in this series).

  22. They also say the Lakers have done a good job against Melo because he has only avergaed 20 a game against us. I guess they haven’t done enough research to see he only played one full game out of three.

  23. 20. They are better than people think, but they are risk-takers on defense, they gamble and go for steals and try to turn those into easy transition baskets. If you don’t turn the ball over, you hurt them on both ends of the floor.

  24. You are right Kurt; it is just that after watching the 1st Jazz/Rockets game, I became a bit fearful. We seem to think our bracket is immensely better than the other one. It may not be as rough, but it is close.

  25. 21-I agree Kurt, We will know early, if we aren’t sharp off the bat the Nuggets can get up double figures.

  26. The problem with Hollinger (and Scouts Inc.) IIRC is that they use the def. efficiency stats to rank the Nuggets’ efficiency, and the numbers don’t tell the whole story (as Kurt and co. have beaten to death repeatedly).

    Just as a random note, I went by the Nugg Doctor recently and was put off quite a bit by his analysis of the matchups. Several issues:
    1) AI’s assists numbers compared to Kobe’s don’t tell enough about how they facilitate the offense. AI only dishes when a guy is open or has a good shot; Kobe can and will stretch the D out of position first and then make the pass that leads to the assist (or to the pass that leads to the assist, etc.). He also conveniently forgets that Kobe killed the Nuggets in the regular season with his passing when they insisted on doubling him.

    2) Who here thinks Luke Walton is the 6th best player on the Lakers? Anyone? Anyone? 7th? 8th? Hell, 9th? If Bynum and Ariza were healthy I think Walton would be the odd man out, but the guy seems to think that he’s the Lakers’ 6th man. Sure, J.R. Smith does blow Luke out of the water when it comes to scoring and explosiveness, but comparing your best bench player to your opponent’s 3rd or 4th best bench player and then declaring superiority? Huh?

    3) The Nuggets have a more balanced attack? Am I missing something here? Their two stars seem to take turns going 1-on-5 half the time and one of them is an absolute chucker who happily takes shots away from the other when it’s obvious that no one on the other team can guard him. If you’re looking at “Number of Name Stars” I can understand Kobe being outnumbered 2:1, but this I really don’t get.

  27. Don’t know if any of you caught this:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/playoffs2008/news/story?id=3355619

    Bad omen for the Nuggets?

  28. I just don’t think there will be any gimmes in these playoffs (unlike, say, the T-wolves of yore). I almost hate to see any West team lose, because they’ve all played so hard to get to this point, and it’s been so great for the fans. Kinda pisses me off that the East has teams like the Hawks getting into the playoffs. But that’s another rant.

  29. game chat post up