Records: Lakers 8-0, Nuggets 4-4
Offensive ratings: Lakers 116.4 (1st in NBA), Nuggets 108.9 (7th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (7th in NBA), Nuggets 107.2 (19th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Nuggets: Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Shelden Williams, Nene Hillario
Injuries: Lakers: Andrew Bynum (out); Nuggets: Kenyon Martin (out), Chris Andersen (out)
The Lakers Coming in: Even an 8-0 team isn’t without some things kinks to work out. Tuesday night’s lack luster effort in defeating the Timberwolves prompted some harsh comments from Derek Fisher. The Lakers’ issues with controlling their defensive glass are real and can’t be dismissed as the result of simply missing Andrew Bynum (though that’s definitely a big part of it). And while a wandering focus is natural for all teams, the fact that this is a familiar theme for the Lakers brings back concerns that many have had over the past couple of seasons.
However, despite all of those issues I’m not worried and don’t think anyone should be. Not every game will be one handily and there will be games that are outright ugly that still produce a W. Tuesday night was one of those nights and now the team must move on. A bigger challenge awaits tonight and if the team get’s too caught up in what was, they’ll not be prepared for what will be.
Other News: If you haven’t heard already, the Lakers plan to unveil a statue of Jerry West outside of Staples Center during All-Star Weekend (which takes place in Los Angeles this year). The statue of Mr. Clutch will join those of Magic Johnson and Chick Hearn as Lakers related tributes outside of the team’s home arena. It’s not yet known if West will be depicted as a player or an executive, but you can go here to drop a vote on which version of the Logo should be erected.
The Nuggets Coming in: At 4-4, the Nuggets are still searching for some continuity and momentum in the early part of the season. They’re coming off two straight losses (Bulls, Pacers) and had one of the worst defensive quarters in NBA history against Indiana when they gave up 54 points as the Pacers shot 20-21 from the field.
And the problems they’re having aren’t just limited to finding a rhythm in the season’s early going. They’re currently struggling with injuries as two thirds of their big man rotation (Kenyon, Birdman) are out while recovering from knee surgeries and that’s really hurt their defense and rebounding. They’ve been forced to play Shelden Williams and Melvin Ely a combined 40 minutes a night and also had to go small at times with Al Harrington playing the four. Needless to say, this isn’t a recipe for success.
And of course there is the ongoing issue of what’s going to happen with Carmelo Anthony. Will he get traded? Will he sign the extension that’s been on the table for months? No one knows for sure, but it’s got to be a distraction for a team that’s not been known to be the most focussed group in the league. And while George Karl is back on the bench after his battle with throat cancer (and it’s great to have coach Karl back), there’s not much he can do besides play the guys that he has and try to keep his group on the same page each night. So while it’s not a mess in Denver, I continue to get the feeling that we’re not too far away from it.
All that said, this team still does have talent. Just because ‘Melo has that cloud doubt surrounding his future doesn’t mean his still not producing high quality numbers. Though is scoring is a bit down from years past, he’s still putting up 24 points a game on 49% shooting (including 47% from three where he’s cut his attempts down from over 5 last year, to only 2.4 this season). He’s also grabbing his highest number of rebounds a game (7.4) in three years. And while the numbers for these players are down from last season, the Nuggs still also have Billups, Nene, JR Smith, and Ty Lawson as the core of a team that can easily go on big runs offensively and make any defenses night difficult.
Nugget Blogs: Go check out the fine work that Jeremy and crew at Roundball Mining Company are doing on a daily basis.
Keys to game: The Lakers are in for a test tonight. Throw out the records tonight because the Nuggets are a team that always seems to raise their respective games when they face off against the Lakers. So if the Lakers are going to win the game they’ll need to do the little things well and pay attention to detail on both sides of the ball in order to diminish Denver’s strengths and enhance their own.
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. Gasol will likely be guarded by Nene so I’d like to see Pau use his mid-range jump shot to set up his drives to the basket early in order to get the big Brazilian off balance. Once Pau gets his offense going he’ll require extra attention and that’s when the other Lakers (especially Odom) can get going by slashing off the ball and getting into the gaps of Denver’s interior defense.
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. Instead, I’d love to see Kobe operate at the mid and low post and use his strong base to back down Afflalo to try and create good looks in the paint or draw fouls. I’d also like to see Kobe work more off the ball and make his catches while on the move in order to neutralize the length that Afflalo brings to table. If Kobe can successfully use the curls, back cuts, and hand off sequences of the Triangle he should be able to score well and do so efficiently.
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 has a complete offensive game and will try to shake off Ron with jab steps to free up his mid range jumper, but Ron needs to stick close to him and force him to put the ball on the ground. If ‘Melo does go left, look for him to step back and shoot his jumper off one or two dribbles or for him to jump step into the lane where he can elevate and shoot over the top of his man. Regardless of whether it’s Artest or Barnes in the game, the Lakers need to follow this game plan and make Anthony work for every bucket.
The other player to really look out for is Billups. While he’s having a down year so far (only 14.5 points and 4.4 assists a game) he’s still quite dangerous. He’s been a top performer against the Lakers since the 2004 Finals and I get the sense that every game against the Lakers is circled on his calendar. Billups is great playing in the P&R and loves for guys to go under the screen so he can step back and shoot his jumper. When defenders chase him over the top of the screen he still likes to explode off the pick in an attempt to get in the lane and draw fouls so he can go to the FT line and show off his 90% stroke on freebies.
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. If Smith comes out hot or Lawson uses his speed to jam the ball down the Lakers’ throats in transition, it could be a long night. The Lakers need to try and limit these players’ effectiveness while trying to make a difference in their own right by running the Triangle and getting each other good shots as they’ve done all season.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start out west on TNT. Also listen live on ESPN Radio 710am.