Lakers/Nuggets Preview

Kurt —  May 18, 2009

Los Angeles Lakers vs Denver Nuggets in Denver
Due to time constraints (and the fact I like sleep) I’m not going to do the big two-part breakdown of the Lakers/Nuggets series that I did for the previous two. Instead, one long post filled with a host of thoughts.

• Don’t confuse this Denver team with the Nuggets that the Lakers swept last season, or even the team that the Lakers beat in the regular season. The Nuggets come in hot, having steamrolled their first two opponents and no doubt the franchise is playing the best ball it has in decades. But as we’ve been saying, the NBA is all about matchups, especially in a seven game series — and both Dallas and New Orleans are terrible matchups against Denver. So far the center’s they have had to face are Tyson Chandler and Eric Dampier. The two power forwards — David West and Dirk Nowitizki — are good but have an allergic reaction to the paint. This round will be a lot more interesting.

• To me, the biggest key for the Lakers is Andrew Bynum. The Lakers need his defense in the paint (as seen in game seven). They will really need his rebounding as the Nuggets will turn defensive rebounds into transition baskets, making them commit to the boards can slow that.

And as Jeremy from Roundball Mining Company pointed out, Bynum on the court creates much tougher matchups for Denver — Bynum’s size and length will be hard for Nene to match. Kenyon Martin’s physical style has had some impact on Gasol this season, but Gasol still averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds. Gasol also can attack Martin in more ways in the post than Dirk could, and expect the Lakers to go with that.

For the Lakers to win, they need to control the paint and the boards. That means that they need Bynum. That also means the Lakers need to get him a couple of good offensive touches in a place he can score from early in the game — everything with Bynum is about confidence. When he makes an early play and gets an early basket, things flow for him. If he picks up silly fouls he never quite gets he head screwed on right again. The Lakers will be counting on the good Bynum.

• The second biggest factor will be fouls and if the Lakers can draw them. Over the course of the season, the Rockets were 2nd in the league in fewest fouls to field goal ratio. They were particularly careful not to foul Kobe despite playing him physically — the result is the Lakers did not get a lot of easy points.

The Nuggets, on the other hand, fouled fifth most in the league. They will hack inside — you can call that physical if you want. The Lakers have to: 1) Realize they are not going to get all the calls they want, stop whining to the refs and play through it; 2) Make the Nuggets pay at the free throw line. That we did see in matchups between the teams this year.

The Nuggets have K-Mart and Nene, with Chris “Birdman” Andersen coming off the bench (and coming from the weakside for the block) but that is about it with quality post defenders. If the Lakers can get one or more in foul trouble, the matchups really swing for Los Angeles.

• Fouls leads right into another key matchup — K-Mart on Gasol. Dirk had some big nights against K-Mart, but he is also a very different player than Gasol. Pau will be in the post and Darius talks about that matchup.

We just played a team that refused to foul. Can Denver do the same? Pau struggles against Hayes and Perkins’ types, but Martin is not in that mold.. Sure he’ll battle, but he’s also a reacher and a guy that goes for blocks. Martin is also a guy that can get frustrated and give a hard foul to send a “message”. But if he’s wasting any fouls in this series, it will come back to bite him as I don’t see the depth outside of their three bigs to play with us if they foul at the rates that they have against us during the regular season. Martin must play without fouling and he must keep his head. If he doesn’t, Birdman plays extended minutes. And while he played well against Dirk, Gasol is not a jumpshooting big that is trying to play 18 ft and in.

• Kobe is going to have more room to operate this series. The Nuggets have talked about Dahntay Jones as a get-under-your-skin defender who will draw the primary assignment on Kobe (JR Smith and maybe Kenyon Martin maybe). Jones did a good job on Chris Paul in the first round. But he allowed two shooting guards to shoot 59% (eFG%) and had a PER of 19.

Again, this is a matchup thing. Jones is the kind of defender who uses his athleticism to bother the man he’s guarding, but that tends not to be the kind of guy who is effective on Kobe. Stronger defenders (ala Battier) are. Kobe has gotten his in the past against Denver and will again.

And that’s probably going to be okay with Denver. I expect Denver to treat Kobe the way they did Nowitzki — not a lot of doubles, let him get his points, but don’t let him start involving teammates. The other Lakers need to step up to challenge that strategy.

• Carmelo Anthony has been playing some of the best ball of his career in the playoffs, scoring and getting the ball moving to teammates when the defense adjusts. But, he has struggled against the Lakers. Darius will take it from there.

Over the past couple of seasons he just hasn’t played that well against us. Rad gave him problems, Ariza is a guy that can take away his quick first step, and Luke is a guy that will battle him on the block and at least try real hard. So, can Melo break through? All those questions aside though, I really can’t say enough about this guy. He’s not the physical freak like Lebron or Wade and he’s not the maniacally focused player like Kobe, but this guy is really damned good. His offensive game has no holes and if he gets it going he can put up 20 point quarters and wreck a defense. I actually think our SSZ is built for a guy like Melo though, so I hope to see us trap him and give him tough looks by funneling him to our bigs. He loves the mid block and he loves to isolate on the wing, so I hope we can effectively double team him within our normal scheme and still recover to shooters like Smith and Billups.

• There’s been a lot of talk on this site and other places about how much of a better matchup Chauncey Billups is for the Lakers than Aaron Brooks. In terms of style, yes, he is — Billups is not a lightning quick slasher ala Paker or Jameer Nelson. And we know how the Lakers struggled with those guys. But Billups also is one of the best point guards in the game and if you don’t think he can damage Fisher and the Lakers, you don’t remember 2004.

Kwame a. takes it from there:

Billups has been attacking the cup in the playoffs: Billups has been reinvigorated himself in these playoffs. In the ’06, ’07, and ’08 playoffs Billups faded in the later rounds. These playoffs I’ve seen him do something he hasn’t done much since the Pistons made back to back finals in ’04 and ’05 — attack the basket. Last series against the Mavs, Billups used his great ability to change his tempo to get into the lane off the high screen and roll. Billups was able to get the 10-12 foot pull-up that he is quite proficient at. He also got to the cup and was finishing with his great strength. Last, he was able to collapse the defense and find open men, either under the hoop for layups, or on the wings/corners for 3 balls.

Billups isn’t a speedster, but what he does better than most PG’s is make the right decisions. He has great strength, great change of pace and can control a game both by scoring and by distributing (something Brooks cannot do). Billups has less of a speed advantage against Fish, but it would be foolish to think that Fish is doing cartwheels at the idea of guarding the guy that won a Finals MVP against him 5 years ago.

• One potential big problem for the Lakers in this series is JR Smith coming off the Denver bench. Darius likes JR’s game:

He’s the ultimate wildcard and he’s the type of player that will give Sasha problems. Essentially, this isn’t some Von Wafer or Kyle Korver here, this guy can play. I don’t see Sasha’s pressure bothering him at all. He’s not only athletic, but he’s got a good handle and will hit from deep but will take it to the basket. We’ve seen this guy go at Kobe, so we know he’s not intimidated by anyone. if he’s making his shots he can win a game by himself. We must try to keep him under wraps – he’s that dangerous to us and is that big a boost to Denver.

• Turnovers will be key, or more specifically not having them. Both teams are loaded with athletes and like to get out and run and finish well in transition. If one team is coughing up the ball a lot, it is going to be hard to win. That simple.

• A few suggestions on places to get information on this series. First, for the Nuggets, I have long been a big fan of Jeremy at Roundball Mining Company and you will learn a lot reading his site. (Also, come by Wednesday afternoon for a live chat with Jeremy and myself.)

Also for the Nuggets, there is Pick Axe & Roll, as well as Nuggets Nuggetz.

For the Lakers, there are a lot of great blogs, but you will get a lot of great video and insight from the Brothers K over at the LA Times, and Silver Screen and Roll is doing great work.

• As we have done with every preview some final thoughts from Kwame a.

Denver is playing their best ball: Like any coach would hope for, George Karl’s boys are playing their best ball of the year. They finished the regular season ranked 7th in Offensive Efficiency and 8th in Defensive Efficiency. Those numbers aren’t too shabby, and it is primarily due to Chauncey Billups bringing a disciplined approach to an offense that was good, but rudderless with A.I and replacing Marcus Camby’s woeful PnR defense with a combination of Nene and Chris Anderson (I refuse to call that dude by his nickname). In the playoffs they are 1st in Offensive Efficiency (at whopping 118.5- the Cavs are 2nd with a 111.9) and 4th in Defensive Efficiency at 101.3. They have had the luxury of playing two teams that didn’t match-up great with them, but they did what they have clearly come together as a team at the right time.

3 other Keys: 1) Make Melo a scorer. Against the Mavs I was very impressed by Melo’s ability to get other people good shots. One of the other reasons the Nuggets offense has been absurdly good this post-season is Melo. He has all the moves inside the 3-point line: face up jumper, post moves, ability to drive to the hole. When he is hitting the 3 ball and passing to open teammates, the Nuggets will score 115 with ease. I think if we can keep Melo to a scorer, it will be harder for the Nuggets to get everyone involved. Ariza and Luke will be the key to this, as well as Drew/Pau who will have to be able to show and recover (Nene is a better player than Hayes and must be accounted for). 2) Make Billups work on D: Here is where Fish (and Shannon Brown) can really help us this series. Forcing Billups to play defense will tire him out, and over the last couple years, he has lost steam at this point in the playoffs. 3) Rotation: I would like to see Phil find a rotation against the Nuggets early in the series and for him to stick with it.