Preview and Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Darius Soriano —  January 21, 2011

Records: Lakers 31-13 (2nd in West), Nuggets 24-17 (7th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 112.1 (1st in NBA), Nuggets 111.7 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.5 (9th in NBA), Nuggets 108.5 (19th 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 Hilario
Injuries: Lakers: Matt Barnes & Theo Ratliff (both out), Andrew Bynum (questionable); Nuggets: Chris Andersen

The Lakers Coming in: There are two ways to look at the Lakers right now – either they’re winners of 8 of their last 10 games or they’re coming off a tough loss against the Mavs that has them trending downward again. I think a lot of folks would say the latter is more true and I can’t blame them. However, as I mentioned yesterday, the Lakers are also not the types to win more than 6-7 games in a row and then they lose a game or two only to start another run. Based off that math, the Lakers should be turning it around right about now, ready to start another push by rattling off 3-4  (or more) consecutive games.

What stands in the way of that logic is the fact that the Lakers may be in the midst of the toughest part of their season schedule. Starting with the OKC game on Monday, the Lakers opponents have been/will be Dallas, Denver, Utah, Sacramento, Boston, Houston, then San Antonio.  After that brutal stretch, the Lakers embark on their “Grammy” road trip where they play 7 games away from Staples in 11 days and face a slate that includes New York, Boston (again), and Orlando (with Memphis, New Orleans, and Charlotte – always a tough foe for the Lakers – thrown in). Even the most optimistic fan would say that’s a slew of tough games over the next month with the potential to rack up losses a real possibility. This stretch will help define this team…we’ll see if it’s for the better or not.

The Nuggets Coming in: There really hasn’t been much going on with this team lately. I’m not sure if there’s even anything worthwhile to discuss.

If only those two sentences were close to being true…

Trade rumors have been swirling around this team all season as the Melo-drama has been going full boar for over a month. Frankly, it’s been exhausting following this as a fan, so I can only assume the behind the scenes strain this has put on the players and coaches. As New Jersey and New York (and Houston and others) all threw their hats into the ring to acquire Anthony, the Nuggets have still had games on their schedule and have been trying to block out the distractions to stay competitive in the deep-as-ever West.  And it’s not just Melo that’s had to deal with trade rumors. Billups has also been rumored to be part of the Nets/Nuggets trade talks and for a man that’s from Colorado and sees the Nuggets as his hometown team that’s a tough thing to deal with. 

Through it all, though, they currently sit 7th in the conference and with the distractions starting to die down (some) this may be the best time for them to make a real push back up the standings. They’re coming off a very good win over the Thunder on Wednesday and in their past 5 games they’ve won 4 – including a drubbing of the Heat.  After the Lakers they face the Pacers, Wizards, Pistons, Cavs, 76ers, and Nets so I’m sure they’d just love to have back to back wins over the Thunder and Lakers and carry some momentum into a pretty soft stretch of their schedule. Right now, this team is dangerous and I have a strong feeling we’ll see a strong effort from them tonight.

Nuggets Blogs: Jeremy does an excellent job covering the Nuggets at Roundball Mining Company. He’s been all over this ‘Melo stuff since the get go and spearheads consistently smart analysis at that site. Go give ’em a read.

Keys to game:Normally X’s and O’s litter this part of the preview and while we’ll get to that stuff in a second, I can say that there may be no bigger key to this game than controlling the emotion and feelof this game. Denver is always a tough road game and the fans there love to see the Lakers come to town one day and leave the next after watching the Nuggets hang an L on their heads. This makes for a rowdy arena with hometown supporters ready to burst at any big shot or play from the Nuggs. Tonight, emotions will be even higher than normal due to the drama surrounding Anthony. In the Thunder game, he got booed but that only seemed to rally him (he had 35 points) and the team to the point that they pulled out an impressive win. So, the Lakers will need to find a way to keep an even keel during a game that will be emotionally charged. They’ll need focus and calm in the face of a team that’s looking to circle the wagons and use the moment as a rallying point.

From a tactical standpoint, this game will hinge like most Lakers/Nuggets games do which is on the ability of the Lakers to exploit their size advantage inside on offense while limiting Anthony and Billups on the other end. That means that Gasol will need to have more than a solid game against Kenyon Martin – a player that loves to try and bully Pau into mistakes – and Bynum will have to use his length and power to get deep position against Nene and establish the low post. If both those things happen on offense, the Lakers should be able to establish a tempo that works in their favor.

Defensively, there will be no better test to Ron’s even-more-stingy-of-late defense than sticking with Carmelo. Many tout Anthony as the purest scoring wing in the league and I’d have a hard time arguing with that. Forget that the advanced stats say that he’s not that efficient for a moment and just concentrate on the fact that he’s a major threat from any position on the floor – three point line to the low block. His footwork is excellent and his triple-threat work rivals Kobe’s as the best in the league. Plus, he’s strong as hell so knocking him off his spot or keeping him off the offensive glass is a problem when he’s determined to get there. All that said, slowing him down is possible. Ron needs to fight him for space and consistently push him to the baseline regardless of what side of the floor he sets up on. When he drives hard, the goal is to stay on his hip in order to contest his step back jumper and rely on big man help rotating to contest shots at the rim. When he goes to his left hand, he’s prone to spin back to his right to shoot his jumper, so be aware that any drive left is likely a move to set up a counter. After that, all a defender can do is get a hand up and contest the shot. If he makes it, tip your cap and go back the other way.

As for Billups, he’s still the same guy that loves to shoot PUJIT’s from deep or feint his jumper and drive to the rim to draw contact and earn foul shots. I’d love to see Kobe take some minutes on him but with Afflalo having an excellent year shooting the ball (not to mention his excellent size for a SG) it’s doubtful that Phil can afford to slide Fisher up on defense. So, the Lakers will have to play solid team D on Chauncey by getting back on D to contest his transition shots and then building a wall higher up in the lane to discourage his drives both in the open court and in the P&R.

The other key to the game is slowing the Nuggets’ bench. JR Smith, Ty Lawson, and Al Harrington represent an explosive trio on offense that feasts in the open court. They’re all dual threats from behind the arc and attacking the rim so there’s no set way to play them besides hustling back, finding them early in transition, and then playing them straight up. They all require attention, but Smith and Lawson are much more explosive and tend to turn their games up when the Lakers are the opponent.

In the end, this is a tough game and it can go either way. However, the Lakers know what it takes to beat this team. If LA can limit Denver’s runs and keep the pace of the game slow-ish there’s a good chance that LA leaves the victor. But the work must get done to make it happen. Good close outs, strong rebounding, and determination in getting back on D will win the day. Let’s get this win.

Where you can watch: 7:30 start out west on KCAL and ESPN. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.

Darius Soriano

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