Preview & Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Darius Soriano —  December 31, 2011

Records: Lakers 2-2 (7th in West), Nuggets 2-1 (5th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.4 (11th in NBA), Nuggets 109.4 (4th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 97.3 (6th in NBA), Nuggets 99.5 (10th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Nene Hillario
Injuries: Lakers: Derrick Caracter (out); Nuggets: none

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won two in a row and are starting to find their identity on both sides of the ball. Offensively they’re using motion based sets to get Kobe free all over the court and when he catches the ball, #24 is looking to attack off the dribble and get into the teeth of the defense. This aggression has led to Kobe taking nearly 2 more FT’s a game this season than last. The Lakers are also working to get Gasol the ball in all his key spots and the Spaniard has adapted himself well to Brown’s schemes. Pau is getting touches on the block, putting up efficient numbers when working in the post, and playing a nice all around game so far this season.

Meanwhile on defense, the Lakers are playing an aggressive, physical scheme where challenging shots and playing body on body is the norm. Against the Knicks, this led to a lot of fouls and, subsequently, NY FT’s but it also led to 31% shooting and many jumpers finding iron rather than the bottom the net. The D is still a work in progress in some areas – the back side rotations to shooters in the corner can still be a bit slow – but that’s more a product of personnel than scheme. When Murphy or Kapono or even MWP has to sprint from the paint back to their man in the corner it’s simply a matter of foot speed rather than the limitations of the scheme. Over time these guys can start to anticipate that pass sooner but that will only come with better execution of the Laker big men recovering to the paint after hedging on the P&R.

And speaking of big men, the biggest of the all the Lakers will be back for this contest. Bynum’s 4 game suspension is finally over and the young center is ready to join his guys back on the court. What this means for the team remains to be seen but if his emphasis is still on defense and rebounding while playing to his strengths on offense – working the deep low post, hitting the offensive glass – he’ll be a more than fine. If he shows that he can take that next step on offense by becoming a dependable low post scorer against varying defenses, the Lakers become an extremely dangerous team that can’t be discounted from winning anything. Only time will tell, however.

The Nuggets Coming in: The Nuggs are 2-1 and look to have the potential to be one of the better teams in the west. They’re deep, relatively young, have good shooters, good size, and play hard for coach George Karl.

Coming into the off-season this team had questions about what their roster would look like as both Afflalo and Nene were free agents that were at the top of many teams’ wish lists who had needs on the wing and/or in the pivot. However, with both choosing to stay in Denver, this team now has a the core of a team that could make some real noise in the west – especially in this frenetic, compacted season. Their ability to run teams off the court, substitute en masse, and simply keep coming at opponents in waves can be demoralizing if everyone’s shots are falling.

Nuggets Blogs: Roundball Mining Company is a great site for all your Nuggets news and analysis.

Keys to game: This game will be a battle of styles, and whichever team does the better job of making the other team play out of their comfort zone will likely win.

Denver plays at the fastest pace in the league, pushing the ball at every opportunity. The key to playing this style is the ultra-quick (and fast) Ty Lawson, who zooms up and down the court like his shoes are on fire. Every time Lawson catches the ball he’s a threat to get all the way to the rim by darting through a team’s transition D. The Lakers must be aware of this and recover on D to ensure that Lawson doesn’t single handedly dominate them in the open court. However, the Lakers simply can’t pack the paint in transition to slow Lawson. They must also mark shooters running the floor and recover back to the three point line whenever Afflalo, Gallo, Al Harrington, or Rudy Fernandez are in the game. All of these guys are threats behind the arc and all love to trail behind the play and step into a three pointer with no defenders nearby because the entire D got sucked into the paint. So, LA’s strategy must be to build a wall on D and then fan back out to the perimeter to contain shooters.

LA, meanwhile, plays at the 3rd slowest pace in the league and wants to try and get Denver playing at that tempo. The Lakers’ transition D is one key in this plan, but the other is to continue to play a deliberate style on offense. When you watch this team play you consistently see Mike Brown telling his guys to push the ball and get up court quickly, but notice he’s not telling them to shoot quickly. Brown wants the Lakers getting into their sets fast because he’s running motion based sets with multiple options on each call. Be it a Kobe jumper, a Pau post up, or  a wing P&R between Fisher and McRoberts, all of these actions can be set up on a single play call in a single possession and the Lakers need time to execute the actions. It’s also clear that Brown wants them exploring these derivative sequences rather than simply breaking the play to go into isolation. This type approach has meant the Lakers are racing the court while simultaneously slowing down the action at the same time. Today, they’ll need to execute this style perfectly against a Denver team that will tempt them to fire up quick shots and play fast break basketball.

On a micro level, I’m very interested in two match ups today. First is Kobe vs Afflalo. These two match up quite well as Afflalo’s length and strong defensive instincts have given Kobe problems in the past while his evolving offensive game has often burned Kobe that has all too often gone into “free safety” mode against the former UCLA product. Today, I want to see if Kobe is able to crack the defensive code that Afflalo’s shown him in past games and continue to work 18 feet an in both with his jumper and in getting to the rim where he can either finish or earn foul shots. I also want to see if Mike Brown’s emphasis on defensive accountability means that Kobe can no longer play off his man so much and how much Kobe pressures Afflalo on that end of the floor.

The second match up I’m interested in is Bynum vs. Nene. The big Brazilian just signed a monster contract to stay in Denver and I want to see if he’s doing anything different to try and justify his deal. I’ve always thought highly of Nene on both ends of the floor – he’s a very efficient post scorer that plays within himself and on defense he has very quick feet and active hands that make him great in the P&R – but I’m not sure if his value is as high as his contract is for. Meanwhile this is Bynum’s first game back and I want to see how he matches up getting thrown into the deep end of the pool right away. There are few two way big men better than Nene, so Drew will have his hands full trying to score on him on one end and then stop him on the other. If Bynum can hold his own today, I think that speaks well for where he’s at physically after his suspension and, hopefully, where he’s at mentally in being ready for the season.

Where you can watch: 12:30pm start time on Fox Sports. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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