The Lakers and the Nuggets simply don’t like each other. You see it on the court and you hear it in the quotes from the players both before and after the games. So, when these two teams play a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon, you’re bound to see an intense battle where both teams give a strong effort in order to prove that they are the better team. And that’s exactly what we got in a 95-89 slugfest that saw the Lakers earn their first win against the Nuggets this season. This was a game that everyone who follows basketball (save for Jeff Van Gundy pregame) thought that the Lakers needed to have. And what do you know; they pulled it out and showed some of that championship mettle that had been questioned in recent days (especially when citing their record against the NBA’s best teams). The Lakers wanted to prove a point to critics. To the other team. Maybe even to themselves. And on this Sunday, they did just that.
But it didn’t start out that way. In what has been an all too familiar theme recently, the Lakers started the game flat footed and sloppy. Yes, they were able to score on the Nuggets. The Lakers ran a couple of nice post up plays for Pau, and Ron (more on him later) was able to hit a couple of jump shots. But for the most part, Denver looked like the stronger, quicker, and better team early. The Lakers were playing with urgency, they just weren’t playing smart. Turnovers and fouls had the Lakers looking like a team that couldn’t get out of their own way. Meanwhile the Nuggets looked like they were intent on steamrolling right through the defending champs. Denver pushed the ball, attacked the paint hard via dribble penetration, and started out hot behind the three-point line. Essentially, without the same level of crazy shot making, take what happened in the matchup between these teams on February 5th and just play that through your mind. After one period, the Lakers were down 8 but it felt like 15. And the second period really wasn’t much better. The Lakers continued to play unevenly and the Nuggets continued to take advantage of the Lakers miscues. All in all, it just looked like the Nuggs were going to run away with this game as all aspects of their game were working while the Lakers were only partially effective.
Actually, not all aspects of the Nuggets game were working. One player was struggling – Carmelo Anthony. And he was struggling for the same reason that the Lakers were even partially effective – Ron Artest. Ron hounded Carmelo mercilessly and bodied him every chance he got. When Anthony was even able to make a catch, Ron sat on his right hip and forced him into difficult shots or into just passing the ball. Every time that Anthony made a shot it was over an outstretched arm or with Artest as physically close to him as possible without fouling. It was just a superb defensive effort from #37. And then on offense, Ron kept the Lakers in the game. In the first quarter, Ron had two 3 pointers and two steals (one of which led to a break away dunk). He followed that up in the second frame with another 3 pointer, 2 assists, another steal, and a drawn offensive foul on Carmelo. Simply put, Ron Artest was the difference maker in the first half. Even the Nuggets were still getting most of what they wanted on offense, their main player was struggling. At halftime, the Nuggets were up 9 but it should have been closer to 20. Before heading into the locker room, Chauncey Billups would say as much in his short interview.
The second half, especially the fourth quarter, is where the Lakers would really assert themselves and show the style of game that continues to frustrate the Nuggets. It really comes down to three factors. First is taking care of the ball. Based off defensive efficiency, the Nuggets are only an average defensive team. Sure they have a physicality that can bother the Lakers, but when the Lakers don’t help Denver’s cause by giving them the ball the game becomes much easier for the Lakers’ offense. Fourteen first half turnovers would only become seventeen by the end of the game and this was a major factor in the Lakers finding a rhythm on offense.
Second is player positioning teamed with player substitutions. In the second half, and specifically in the fourth quarter the Lakers went to Kobe on weakside elbow and put Odom in the game. The combination of these two factors was too much for Denver to handle and it essentially became the go to set for the Lakers offense down the stretch. This set and player combo does two key things for the Lakers – it puts Kobe in a position where he can either create more easily for himself while also making double teaming him both difficult and costly. Going back to last year’s playoffs, George Karl has not found a solution for this set as he never seems to feel comfortable leaving a defender on an island against Kobe. This leads to double teams that Kobe can handle quite well with pin point passes to cutters in the middle of the key or to players in the opposite corner with a skip pass. This is where Odom’s presence comes into play, as he is the player that has the mobility and instincts to know when and how to cut into space, making himself available and in position to be dangerous on offense. And boy, was LO effective. He closed the game with 9 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and either made shots or drew defenders to get our other guys good looks. Tremendous play from both LO and Kobe and it essentially won the game for us on the offensive side of the ball. (On a side note, I’m not going to harp on Andrew Bynum’s game against the Nuggs. He could have played better, but he really didn’t play that poorly either. His offense was strong enough to command double teams and his defense was okay as he blocked some shots and closed down penetration by using his size but still wasn’t as active on the defensive glass and was at times a step slow in deciding what was the proper defensive rotation. I think we all know that ‘Drew can play better. But I still believe that he was okay.)
The third key to this second half victory was the Lakers defense. I already mentioned Artest, but he deserves another mention now. Ron was just amazing. He battled the entire night and made his mark on this game by making ‘Melo work hard for everything. But Ron was not alone in his defense. Kobe, Lamar, Pau, they all played huge down the stretch of this game by forcing tough shots, contesting, and then (for the most part) securing the defensive rebound. Even when the Nuggs did secure offensive boards, the Lakers didn’t quit or hang their heads on the subsequent possession and instead just put their hard hat back on and went to work again. The Nuggets had an offensive efficiency rating of 89.7 in this game. Their normal output is 112.4. That’s a huge difference and, ultimately, the difference in this contest. If Denver can’t score at an elite level, they are beatable and the Lakers have both the personnel and offensive sets to grind out wins against this team.
Ultimately, there are some that will call this game a statement game. And to a certain extent, I agree with that. I do think that this game was one where the Lakers wanted to show the Nuggets that they don’t have the upper hand in this matchup. But, I also think that even if the Lakers lost this game it would not have been the end of the world. It would have tightened up the race for home court and it would have added to the already confident Nuggets. It may have also created some doubt amongst the players as to what they can do to beat this team. But I still believe that the Lakers have a ton of self belief and know that the quest for a championship goes through LA. However that “if they lost” question needn’t be asked after this one. The Lakers turned a poor showing with sloppy execution in the first half into a second half that reminded me of game 5 of the WCF from last season. After the game Pau said that the Lakers wanted to show the Nuggets that they don’t have a chance in a series against LA. And while I don’t think this game proved that, I do think that the Lakers are now fully aware of what it will take to beat the Nuggets and have the blueprint to do so.