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 â€” 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 donâ€™t just find that in the playoffs when they havenâ€™t done it during the season.
The Nuggets are inconsistent because they are not a disciplined group of players (I donâ€™t intend that as a knock on coach George Karl, I think itâ€™s more the hand heâ€™s dealt). ESPN.comâ€™s David Thorpe described the Nuggets as looking like an AAU team, and I think thatâ€™s accurate â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” pull out of it when the numbers arenâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 isnâ€™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 â€“ which is easier said than done as he is lightning quick. Lakers bigs need to take away Iversonâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ try not to foul AI. He draws fouls on 17.1% of his attempts and heâ€™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 â€“ 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 canâ€™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 â€“ 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, thatâ€™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.