Records: Lakers 55-20 (2nd in West), Nuggets 46-29 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 111.9 (2nd in NBA), Nuggets 112.4 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 104.3 (6th in NBA), Nuggets 107.4 (17th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenyon Martin, Nene Hilario
Injuries: Lakers: Devin Ebanks (out); Nuggets: none
The Lakers Coming in: As unbelievable as it sounds, the Lakers now control their own destiny in the chase for the top seed in the Western Conference. They trail the Spurs by a game and a half but are only one game back in the loss column, and with a game against the Spurs still on the schedule the Lakers only have to continue to win and the top seed would be theirs. For a season that’s been as up and down (and now back up) as this one, it’s pretty amazing that this team is where it is. While I always had confidence that this team could play to this level, I’d be lying if I said that I saw a streak of 17 wins in 18 tries on the heels of where this team was going into the all-star break.
Whether or not the Lakers catch the Spurs really isn’t a concern for me, however. Yes, I’d like it to happen (even more, I’d like for the Lakers to finish with a better record than any Eastern Conference team, but that’s a story for another day). But, what this streak has reinforced to me is that when the Lakers play their best ball it will be difficult for any team to beat them. So, 1st or 2nd seed I’m just happy this team has found its stride. That, to me, is worth more than any potential seed earned…that level of play could be worth another championship. And isn’t that what we’re really after?
The Nuggets Coming in: The year long soap opera surrounding Carmelo Anthony’s future is now over for this team. And with that weight lifted off their shoulders, this team has responded with fantastic play that’s focused on teamwork. Gone is the high usage superstar that is the focus of every game plan and instead the Nuggs employ a group of versatile players that play together, share the ball, and work hard on both ends of the floor. And the results speak for themselves.
By replacing ‘Melo with three above average rotation players in Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari the Nuggets have become a deeper team that’s winning more games and playing better defense. Just look at the numbers: they’ve won 14 of 18 games and have reeled of 5 straight wins. They’re still leading the league in scoring. They’ve been able to play the same style that they did with ‘Melo on board, but do it even better than before because they’ve got more players that can handle the ball, run the floor, and create shots for themselves. Plus, since the players acquired for Melo came from an offensive system that played just as fast as the Nuggets but was instead predicated on sharing and moving the ball on to the open man (rather than an iso heavy attack), the Nuggets offensive efficiency hasn’t taken a hit while also featuring the strengths of all their players. Essentially, they play just as fast and efficiently but do so with more players being threats on any given play and that’s meant a more diverse attack that’s even more difficult to defend.
Whether or not this is sustainable through the playoffs or into next season remains to be seen. But right now, this group is playing some of the best basketball in the league. And considering that the Knicks (and Carmelo) are not, that has to feel good for the Nuggets and their fans.
Nuggets Blogs: Jeremy at Roundball Mining Company runs a great site and you should venture over and check it out.
Keys to game: As mentioned earlier, the Nuggets may not have that one player that strikes fear into a defense, but they have a group of versatile scorers that play a style that’s difficult to match up with. Denver plays fast, they play physically, and they’re not intimidated by anyone. If the Lakers are to win this game, they’ll have to effectively counter these strengths by slowing the tempo down and turning the game into a deliberate, methodical contest.
Offensively, that means running the Triangle in all its glory. The ball must go inside and the players off the ball must screen and cut with purpose. Gasol has a match up advantage over Kenyon Martin in height and length. The big Spaniard should get plenty of touches both in the hub of the Triangle and on the weak side low block and elbow where he can go to work on Martin. Yes, Martin will try to push Pau around and play him physically. But, this will be nothing new for Gasol and he should be up for the challenge.
Besides Gasol, the other Lakers will have to do their part in running the offense too. Kobe has a tough match up in Afflalo, but can still work effectively on offense by playing off the ball and using screens and hand off sequences to get up his shots. Afflalo is a rangy defender that does well defending players in isolation and in the post, but if Kobe can come off curls into the paint and use screens to slash into the gaps of the Nuggets’ D, he should be able to get good looks. Kobe can also use the P&R to create offense but I’d much rather he receive screens from the player being guarded by Martin (or Chris Andersen) rather than attacking Nene with this action. As we’ve seen over the years, Nene is one of the better big men at hedging and containing perimeter threats off the P&R and Kobe would be best served attacking a big man that isn’t as good at poking the ball away on switches and contesting jumpers when hedging out. (As an aside, I think it will also be interesting to see if George Karl sticks with his same strategy of showing Kobe a second defender when he’s in the low post or at the elbow. In the past, Karl has often sent double teams – both soft and hard – at Kobe when he’s in these strategic positions and time after time Kobe has burned this D by making the correct read. I’ll be watching this closely because if Karl sticks with this strategy, I think Kobe will make him pay.)
The two other players I’ll be watching closely on offense are Artest and Bynum. During the Lakers’ streak both have been strong contributors on O – Bynum with his offensive rebounding and post play and Artest with his jumper and finishes off good cuts. Both should get opportunities to continue their strong play against Nene and Gallo respectively as Kobe and Gasol garner a lot of attention from the Nuggets’ team defensive scheme. We’ll see Drew/Ron can make them pay.
Defensively, the Lakers success will surely come down to being able to slow the Nuggets’ transition game and by making them jump shooters. There may not be a quicker point guard duo than Denvers’ combo of Lawson and Felton so the Lakers will need to be extra aware of getting back in transition and denying penetration by building a wall. The Lakers’ bigs will be instrumental in this effort so they’ll need to sprint back once Denver has secured the defensive rebound so that Lawson and Felton can’t feast in the lane against a D that isn’t set.
As for forcing Denver to shoot jumpers, I should clarify that I’d really like to see the Nuggs taking long two pointers or mid-range J’s. Denver boasts multiple players that are very comfortable spotting up behind the three point arc so the Lakers must be cognizant of shooters and rotate to them aggressively to chase them off the line. Lawson, Felton, Chandler, Gallo, Harrington, and JR Smith are all threats from deep but will not be as successful when having to take a step in and shoot that 18-20 footer. The Lakers wings (as well as Pau and LO) will need to mark these guys and not give up too many free looks from distance.
LA’s P&R defense will also be tested and I’m interested in seeing if the Lakers’ scheme holds up against guards that are as fearless as Denver’s. Lawson, Felton, and Smith are all very aggressive coming off the high screen and all look to get into the paint off the bounce. Bynum, Gasol, and Odom will need to effectively keep these guys in front of them and challenge any shot that goes up when they turn the corner and attack. Smith and Lawson are especially dangerous in this scenario so whenever they get into the paint (and they will) the big man defending the back line will need to be ready to step up and make that a more difficult shot to knock down.
In the end, Denver may not have that singular threat but the fact that they’re playing so well as a team make them extremely dangerous. I also don’t discount the bad blood that’s existed between these teams to give this game a bit more meaning on their side. Plus, since both sides effectively play a 9 man rotation, there should be lots of action between the benches where one side’s reserves could end up playing a crucial role in who wins this game. Out of all the contests that the Lakers have played of late, this team may present the biggest challenge just because they offer the most variety and come in with the most confidence. It should be a good one.
Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on ABC. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710am.