Records: Lakers 44-15 (1st in West), Nuggets 39-19 (2nd in West, 4.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.8 (9th in NBA), Nuggets 112.4 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (1st in NBA), Nuggets 107.2 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene
A budding rivalary: There are only a handful of games each regular season that I truly get excited for. An 82 game regular season is a long campaign and there are just too many games on the schedule for me, as a fan, to truly get too worked up over. Like most Lakers fans, a match up with Boston is one of them. I also love to see the Lakers (and Kobe) go up against the Cavs (and Lebron). But, besides those marquee games, few others get me perked up and looking ahead. A match up with the Nuggets has joined that list. Simply put, I like to see the Lakers match up with the best teams and Denver is in that group.
In fact, coming in, one could argue that the Nuggets are the best team in the league. Sure, they’re only 6-4 in their last ten games (which is still pretty good) but in those games they’ve beaten both the Lakers and the Cavs – the two teams that most media and fans cite as the league’s best. And there are stats to back up Denver’s status as one of the league’s top squads. They have a league best 7-1 record against division leading teams. And they’re not only beating those teams, they’re winning by an average of double digits. We all remember the hot shooting that sunk the Lakers back in on the fifth of this month where Denver’s offensive onslaught was both amazing to watch and terrifying as they showed their capabilities – and all without ‘Melo. And while the Nuggs game against the Cavs wasn’t a blowout, most fans also recall that back and forth game that ended with Carmelo sinking a game winning jumper right in Lebron James’ face. Denver made wins look easy while also showing the grit that the truly great teams have. So you’re likely not going to find a team with more self belief than the Nuggets. And in today’s game, we see a matchup where both teams are sure to want to prove that they are the team to beat in the Western Conference.
To add to the already electric atmosphere of two of the top teams in the West playing is the fact that Denver really dislikes the Lakers and gets up to play them. Our have acknowledged this and know where Denver’s mindset is. And there are Nuggets players that have no trouble expressing their thoughts about the Lakers. This is how it goes when teams develop that dislike of each other. A dislike from facing off in the playoffs in consecutive years. And when one team is the victor in those series, the bad blood builds and the team that is on top becomes the focus of all the other team’s energy. The prevailing team becomes the measuring stick and if that team can be knocked off, the sky is the limit. This is where Denver is right now. They have the confidence. The Lakers have not beaten the Nuggets this season. Now, that want to prove exists for both teams. The Lakers want this game too. They want to win this game, and to do that, certain things must occur.
Keys to the game: Defense is where you must start when analyzing how to beat the Nuggets. They are the 2nd most efficient offense in the league and if you want to beat them, you must find a way to slow their potent attack. It all starts with the two headed monster of ‘Melo and Billups. Stopping ‘Melo is easier said than done. For the past two seasons, I’ve thought that Melo rivals Kobe as the most complete offensive player in the game. He’s got every offensive move in the book and can score from any spot from the floor with ease. So, if you’re going to slow him you need a plan of attack. It starts with making it tough for him to catch the ball. Ron has the strength and the quickness to make catches more difficult for Anthony. So Ron should use his strong body to contest Carmelo’s position all over the court and deny passes. However, Melo is going to get the ball, so the next step is to crowd Carmelo and make him put the ball on the ground. There isn’t a player in the league that uses the triple threat position better than Anthony. He loves to jab step and then either shoot the jumper or take one dribble and then shoot. Make Carmelo finish at the rim over our bigs. It’s not the most full proof plan I admit, but when a guy averages almost 30 points a game, you have to give up something. Slowing Chauncey is actually quite similar to the plan used for ‘Melo. Billups loves to get space to create his jumper and will look to draw fouls when you crowd him. If you can take away his (very effective) PUJIT’s, and make him use his dribble without giving him the chance to jump into you to draw the foul, you will win your match up with Billups. I expect the Lakers to use bigger defenders on Chauncey and that likely means Kobe. With Sasha out and Ron likely locked on Anthony all game, Kobe is the only guy that we have that can both pressure Billups’ jumper while still having the quickness to not get beat to the basket. And with Kobe’s experience in guarding Billups over the years, I think we’ll get extended looks at this matchup today.
The other key to slowing Denver’s offense is limiting the Nugg’s fastbreak chances and points in transition – especially against their second unit. Denver’s bench trio of Lawson, Smith, and Birdman are guys that love to get up and down the floor and will push the pace at every opportunity. The Lakers can accomplish this slow down in two ways. First is to hit the offensive glass hard. Denver is not one of the better defensive rebounding teams, ranking 20th in defensive rebounding rate. It will be difficult for Denver to run if they’re having trouble securing the ball in the first place. So, Pau/Drew/LO need to hit the offensive glass hard. The second way is to run to the paint and create a wall in transition on defense. Smith and Billups are the only Nuggets that instinctively run to the three point line – everyone else loves to attack the paint. The Lakers have been a good team at congesting the paint in transition this season and they’ll need their best effort in this regard today. If the Lakers can get back effectively and still find Smith and Billups in transition when they run to the three point line, I think it will go a long way in limiting Denver’s chances to get the open shots that they’ve converted in our previous games against them
On offense, the Lakers need to stick to the script that appears every time I write one of these previews. Run the Triangle offense. Denver is not a strong defensive team, but they do excel at certain aspects of defense. One thing Denver does well is defend the P&R. Both Nene and Martin have quick feet and are very good at hedging on the ball handler and then recovering to their man. The other thing that Denver does well is help on penetration in the paint with blocked shots (the Nuggs are 4th in the league in blocked shot %). So, I’d implore the Lakers to run their sets and not rely on screen and roll actions or dribble penetration from wing isolations when on offense. Instead, post the ball with our bigs and wings and then screen and cut off the ball. In the playoffs last season, Kobe lived on the weakside pinch post in games 5 and 6 and the results were devastating. Today, he needs to get back to that position on the floor and work his turn around jumper while also using his turn and face game to get easy shots at the rim. The Lakers also need to establish Pau on the block against Kenyon Martin. Martin is a solid defender and can play roughhouse ball on the block, but Pau is too skilled to be held down for an entire game. The same is true of the Bynum/Nene match up as Drew has a size advantage over the Brazilian and he needs to work hard to establish deep post position so he can exploit it.
This is also a game where the Lakers’ bench will need to play well and stay away from the sloppy play that has plagued them for the past week. Farmar and Shannon must be smart with the ball in transition and make good post entries. They cannot rely on just going through the motions and then settling for what is easy for them. They must do everything with purpose and not fall into the trap of taking long jumpers or over using their dribble. They need to look to the post first and then if that option is not there, they need to look to reverse the ball to the top side guard or to the pressure release flashing to the FT line. Odom will also be key (as always). In last season’s playoff match up with Denver it was stellar play from Odom that helped turn the series around. His dunk over Birdman was just one example of how an energetic and active LO can make a difference. Needless to say, that Odom is what is needed in today’s game.
In end, this is a game that is likely to be close and hard fought. I think the Lakers know that this game has meaning beyond just “1 of 82″ and will play with the urgency that has been missing in some of their recent contests. It should be a great one. Let’s get that win.
Nuggets Blogs: For Denver’s perspective on this game, check out the work that Jeremy is doing at Roundball Mining Company. Smart analysis and good insight are the norm over there.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start in the West on ABC. Also on ESPN Radio 710am.