Preview and Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Phillip Barnett —  January 1, 2012

Records: Lakers 3-2 (4th in West), Nuggets 2-2 (8th in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 104.3 (14th in NBA), Nuggets 105.6 (11th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 96.5 (4th in NBA), Nuggets 98.9 (9th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, 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: After yesterday’s ugly win, the Lakers have now won three straight under Mike Brown and continue to grow as a unit. Yesterday saw the return of Andrew Bynum, and what a return it was. 29 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. ‘Drew asserted himself early with 10 points and three rebounds in the first, and continued to play well on both sides of the floor throughout the remainder of the game. Bynum just didn’t look good himself, but as Brian Kamenetzky pointed out, his presence created a lot of good looks for the other Lakers on the floor.

Bynum and Pau Gasol have always had moments where they struggle working together on the block, and given the relative lack of familiarity with Mike Brown’s system, that there were moments Saturday where it seemed like the two of them couldn’t quite work out spacing is no surprise. But between the high number of putbacks and deep post opportunities for Bynum, all high percentage, and an almost endless stream of open mid-range jumpers for Gasol (few are as automatic with those), the Lakers were treated to a lot of good opportunities for their bigs.

Having Bynum and Gasol both available on the pick and roll posed serious problems for the Nuggets, as well. In the first half, Kobe came over a Bynum screen, and as the defense collapsed on him and watched Drew roll to the bucket, Pau snuck out to the elbow for a jumper. In the fourth, Kobe used Gasol in the P’n’R, then found Bynum coming off the weakside block for a lob.

Suffice to say, this Lakers team just got a whole lot better with the return of Bynum. With his return, the Lakers’ bench is also bolstered with Josh McRoberts added to the group. While the 2nd unit was outplayed yesterday, McBob coming off the bench bodes well for this group going forward as they were already a high energy bunch, and McRoberts might play with the most energy on the team.

The Nuggets Coming In: Even though the Nuggets suffered their second loss of the season at the hands of the Lakers last night, they were given ample opportunities to go into the new year with a 3-1 record. The Lakers turned the ball over and took bad shots down the stretch and the Nuggets countered with missed free throws and a huge missed layup by Danilo Gallinari that would have tied the game with about four seconds left to play. Furthermore, they continued their struggles from behind the arc, shooting just seven-for-26 from range.

The bright spots for Denver definitely came off the bench as Andre Miller scored 13 points and recorded a couple of the craftiest assists I’ve seen this season. Al Harrington scored 21 and played within the flow of the offense for the better part of his 29 minutes.

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

Keys to the Game: One of the biggest reasons the Lakers were able to come away with the win yesterday was their ability to keep Denver out of transition. Denver finished the game with 17 fast break points, their lowest total of the season. For the Lakers to win their fourth consecutive game, they can’t just duplicate that performance, but actually must do a better job of finding shooters on fast break and secondary breaks. There were several times where Denver shooters spotted up wide open in transition and simply missed the shot. The Lakers did a great job at building a wall when Lawson raced up the court, preventing him from living in the paint and creating opportunities, but after the initial wall, it’s going to be crucial to find shooters tonight.

While in their half court defense, the Lakers’ backside defender can’t continue to get sucked too far into the paint. What I’ve noticed this season much more than any of the previous three seasons has been the opposing team’s penchant for making the skip pass to spot up shooters on the wing or in the opposite corner. The defensive rotation kinks still haven’t all been worked out, which is giving opposing teams wide-open looks behind the arc. This was evidenced yesterday as the Nuggets hit three wide-open corner three-pointers in the fourth quarter because of quick ball reversals or skip passes. Take a look at how this Aaron Afflalo three developed.

The ball is brought up on the right side by Andre Miller. Josh McRoberts is assigned Afflalo, who is headed for the left corner, making McRoberts the back side defender.

The ball goes to Al Harrington in the right corner. Right now, all five Lakers are in good position. McRoberts has a foot in the paint and knows where the ball and his man are.

After an entry pass back to Miller who took Steve Blake to the post, McRoberts slides all the way over instead of Bynum sliding down. After already being burnt by the corner three a few times, and considering Chris Anderson isn’t as much of a threat to score, this is the Lakers’ first mistake. If Bynum slides down, Miller isn’t going to challenge him, and he’s already in position to challenge Birdman should he receive the pass and drive to the hoop. If Birdman catches that pass and takes a jump shot, the Lakers are happy with that defensive possession.

Instead, Miller kicks it out to a wide open Rudy Fernandez (Jason Kapono was sucked in much too far as well) who could have taken a wide-open three had the pass been on target.

Fernandez makes the extra pass and no one is within five feet of Afflalo as he releases the wide-open three in the corner. Watch the play in real time.

This is a correctable mistake, and will need to be corrected tonight. Should Denver catch fire from behind the arc tonight, it could prove costly for this Lakers team.

Lastly, the Laker offense did some really good things last night, especially with Kobe in facilitator mode early on. With Pau knocking down the mid-range jumper with consistency, it gave Kobe two good P&R options, leading to his nine assists on the night. The P&R work between Kobe and Pau or Bynum also created some very good looks for shooters along the perimeter. Like the Nuggets, the shots just weren’t falling – which might be an understatement as they shot a mere two-for-24 on the afternoon from range.

Later in the game, Kobe took some questionable shots outside of the flow of the offense, which he is going to do from time to time, but I’d like for him to take advantage of the eyes on him every time he touches the ball for the full 48 minutes. Bean made some beautiful passes to Bynum and Pau early in the game, and had the opportunity to make a few more late in the third and into the fourth, but chose to call his own number instead. With his ability to create his own shot, he can get shots up whenever he likes, but getting the ball to Bynum and Pau, who were both very comfortable against the Nuggets defense will only open things up for him when they matter most.

Where you can watch: 5 p.m. start time on KCAL. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Phillip Barnett