(AP Photo/Chris Schneider)
Every team in the NBA has to record their first loss at some point, unfortunately it came at the hands of one of my least liked teams on a night where Kobe became the youngest player in NBA history to rack up 26,000 points. This definitely will not be the last Lakers loss of the season, but I can only hope this is the last loss they record in this particular fashion. They played an abysmal fourth quarter in a very winnable game, and furthermore, the Lakers failed to play well in every area that Darius highlight in the Keys to the Game portion of his Preview and Chat.
Offensively, that means going inside early and often to batter the Nuggets’ interior. With Denver having a depleted front line, Gasol and Odom should be featured in the paint and the Lakers guards/wings should be penetrating the ball in order to get high percentage shots at the basket.
Because of the length of the Boston/Miami game, we didn’t get to see the first seven minutes of the game, but the play-by-play that ESPN offers suggests that the Lakers didn’t make a conscience attempt in getting the ball inside early or often. A lot of the Lakers field goal attempts in the first quarter were mid-range jumpers from 10-17 feet, not higher percentage shots around the rim from Pau and/or LO. In fact, both Pau and LO had off nights. It’s tough to imagine Gasol having a tough night considering he had 17 points and 20 rebounds, but he really struggled in the second half. When the Nuggets bench went on their 14-0 run (more on this later), Al Harrington really took Pau out of his comfort zone. Pau became frustrated, and made mental and physical mistakes for the remainder of the game. Pau missed a few bunnies around the rim that we’re not used to him missing, he made some bad passes from the low post, and wasn’t as decisive as he’s been for much of the season. Odom on the other hand didn’t see the floor much. He was the only starter to not play 40+ minutes, finishing the game with three points, 12 boards in just 26 minutes. According to Kevin Ding’s via Twitter, LO didn’t play much because “Phil wanted to play Shannon and keep Ron on Melo, and DEN went small.” This may be correct, but it’s hard to imagine this remaining true down the stretch. Odom was hitting the boards hard when he was on the floor and Phil usually isn’t one to change he personnel because of the players the opposing coach has on the floor. Suffice to say, the Gasol/Odom duo didn’t do what we have grown to expect from them in the early games of the season.
The other key offensive match up of course involves Kobe. I was not too pleased with Kobe’s tactics on Tuesday as he often worked outside the framework of the Triangle in order to get his baskets. And while he was successful doing so, tonight’s match up against Afflalo won’t be nearly as easy and thus that same approach is not advised.
Yes, Kobe had a season high 34 points, but he took a stifling 32 shots to get there. For the second straight game, the Lakers offense wasn’t executing as well has it had during the first six games of the season and Kobe decided that it would be best if he attempted to take over with his shooting instead of working within the offense. Kobe had a huge third quarter where he was able to go at J.R. Smith and knock down some big, Kobe-esque shots. But down the stretch, he took a few ill-advised shots with the game still in reach. The three pointer he took with the Lakers down by just four points and a minute left in the game was the shot attempt that helped put the game on ice for Denver. Shannon Brown was playing well, and he was able to score a couple of possessions earlier by getting to the rim, with the Lakers being down only two possessions with plenty of time left on the clock, I would have liked him to run the offense or get to the rim for a higher percentage shot or to draw a foul, giving him a chance to chip away at the lead with the clock stopped. Neither happened, Chauncey Billups went to the line and extended the lead to six.
Defensively, the Lakers primary focus should be slowing Carmelo Anthony. Ron Artest has had some good success against ‘Melo and I look for him to employ the same tactics that have worked for him in the past. That means bodying ‘Melo up off the ball and making him work for every catch. When Anthony does have the ball he should force him to his strong hand and make him drive all the way to the rim where there’s help to contest those interior shots.
Carmelo Anthony, especially in the first half, got everything he wanted. His jumper was falling. He knocked down mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper on his way to a 32-point, 13 rebound night. Ron Artest wasn’t able to do much to throw off Anthony’s game. Anthony’s EFG was 58 percent on the night and, more importantly, his ability to score at an extremely efficient rate opened up things for other guys later in the game. At least two sets of eyes were on ‘Melo at the same time, creating cutting lanes, driving lanes and wide open looks for shooters. When Carmelo Anthony can get into a scoring groove early, it makes things much easier for other guys to get going, and that’s exactly what happened.
The other match up I’ll be watching in this game is the battle of the benches. We’ve all been impressed with the Lakers trio of Barnes, Blake, and Brown and how they’ve been able to turn games in the Lakers’ favor in the first 8 games. Well, the Nuggets boast their own trio of bench players with Ty Lawson, JR Smith, and Al Harrington. These 6 players match up by playing the same exact positions and whichever unit has the most success will be a major factor in who wins this game.
One doesn’t have to look further than the end of the third quarter into the fourth to see the effects of Anthony’s propensity to put the ball in the hoop. With 47 seconds left in the third quarter, J.R. Smith made a short jumper as he was fouled. He knocked down the free throw to begin a streak of 19 straight points by the Nuggets bench. Smith, Ty Lawson and Gary Forbes took I to the Lakers in the fourth quarter, which might have been the most pathetic quarter of the Lakers season so far. The Nuggets bench finished the night with 43 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists compared to 29 points, nine rebounds and three assists from the Lakers reserves. Steve Blake was consistently beat off the dribble by Ty Lawson, and Matt Barnes wasn’t able to knock down any shots from behind the arch or score on one of his coveted transition baskets. Shannon Brown was an exception. He played very well and was the Lakers second leading scorer with 19.
The thing is, the Lakers were in prime position to win this game. They did a great job in closing out on the Nuggets shooters, they were doing a great job on the boards and were winning in the turnover battle – all until that awful fourth quarter. As the Lakers record finally indicates, this team is not perfect, but the first loss of the season is no reason to panic. Kobe isn’t going to go 11 for 32 every night, it’s very rare that Pau loses mental focus and (hopefully) the Lakers won’t have too many more quarters where they completely lose grip of what they’re trying to do on both ends of the floor. The Lakers play again this Sunday for the second time against the Phoenix Suns. Lets hope for a bounce back from two bad games.