Preview & Chat: The Denver Nuggets

Darius Soriano —  February 3, 2012

Records: Lakers 13-9 (6th in West), Nuggets 15-7 (2nd in West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 103.8 (13th in NBA), Nuggets 108.6 (1st in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 100.5 (9th in NBA), Nuggets 101.6 (13th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Nene, Timofey Mozgov
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Derrick Caracter (out); Nuggets: none

The Lakers Coming in: The “Grammy Trip” starts tonight with the Lakers playing their next 6 games on the road. And while Kobe and rest of the guys welcome the chance to improve on their wretched road record, the potential for numerous losses are real on this trip. Outside of the Raptors and the Knicks – who both provide challenges in their own right, every team the Lakers will face on this trip has a winning record and is currently a playoff team. No game will be “easy” in the classic sense, and with the Lakers struggling to find their stride so far this season even in games that were considered sure wins, that logic would go out the window. A blowout win over the Bobcats doesn’t change that fact and when you add in that this trip is typically a difficult one, it only adds to the thought that anything could happen while away from Staples.

That said, the Lakers are looking better lately. Their offense (even if you account for playing lesser defenses) is running more smoothly with outside shots starting to fall. Mike Brown has (seemingly) found rotations and player combinations that he’s more comfortable with and that’s led to better consistency from the majority of his roster. Whether this holds true on the trip remains to be seen, but with a long road trip starting the team does seem to be playing good basketball, and that is somewhat comforting.

Moving from the team to an individual level, it was announced that both Kobe and Andrew Bynum were selected as starters on the Western Conference All-Star team. For Kobe it’s his 14th consecutive selection, continuing his reign as the elite shooting guard on the West (as well as the most popular one considering it’s the fan’s vote that gave him the starting nod). As for Bynum, it’s his first selection and I couldn’t be more proud of him. This was a goal he’s set for himself in recent seasons and for him to get there this year is a great moment for him. He’s put up strong numbers and, even more importantly, has impacted the game the way an All-Star big man should by being a real presence in the paint on both ends of the floor. Both Kobe and ‘Drew deserve this recognition and, again, I’m very happy for both of them.

The Nuggets Coming in: This team has won 7 of 10, but has actually lost 2 of their last 3 games. They are, however, coming off a romp of the Clippers by demolishing the other L.A. team with a second half run based off shooting and solid defense. They showed, once again, that they can hang with any team in the league via their depth and ability to hit shots while playing good enough D to get the stops they need.

Really, that’s the formula for the Nuggets. They have the number one offense in the league (in terms of offensive efficiency) and simply wear opponents down over the course of the game with a diverse group of players that comes at you in waves. They can go big (as they do with their starting line up) or small (as they do with their reserves when they play Al Harrington – a strong candidate for 6th MOY, by the way, and a backcourt of Lawson and Miller) and lose nothing in terms of effectiveness while making their opponents switch up their style of play. They have good defensive wings (Afflalo and Gallo are both long, rangy defenders) and their bigs do a good job of protecting the paint. And it all adds up to wins. This is, for all intents and purposes, one of the better teams in the league.

Nuggets Blogs: Roundball Mining Company is a great site that gives you all the info you need on this team.

Keys to game: This is the 2nd night of a back to back for Denver (and the middle game of 3 in 3 nights), so how the Nuggets respond to playing last night on the road and traveling back to Denver will play a big role in who wins this game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when the Nuggets were playing in Denver, hadn’t played the day before, and a visiting team was playing on the second night of a back to back, their record is 52-8 going back to 2007. That’s dominant level stuff. Now that the tables are turned, will they respond the way that “traveling” teams have in the past, considering the Lakers have been rested and have been in Denver since yesterday?

Of course, regardless of how tired or rested (considering how much the starters had to play in the 2nd half against the Clippers) the Nuggets are, this game will come down to more than just this one variable. As stated above, the Nuggets are a talented, deep team. They have 11 players that average at least 10 minutes a night and can throw a variety of lineups at their opponents to capitalize on any weaknesses.

Considering this will be the third time these teams meet, we’ve already seen a few trends:

  • The Nuggets’ speed and ability to force a fast tempo created problems for the Lakers.
  • The Nuggets’ small lineup with Al Harrington stretching the floor as a PF created defensive issues that the Lakers couldn’t solve.
  • When the Lakers were able to establish the post early with Bynum and Gasol, they hurt the Nuggets’ interior D and forced double teams.
  • The Lakers had issues making the defense pay for those double teams by hitting only 6 of their 47 three point attempts.
  • The Lakers limited the Nuggets’ offensive rebounding in both contests.
  • Kobe Bryant was awful in both contests, combining for 33 points on 26% shooting (1-13 from three point land) with 10 turnovers.

Considering these trends, the keys to a Laker win become easier to decipher. First, the Lakers must play a more deliberate game by establishing the post early, but not at the expense of turning Kobe into a long jump shooter. The offense need not tilt entirely in Kobe’s direction, but having him on an island against Afflalo and Gallinari proved to be a bad strategy that resulted in too many long jumpers where long rebounds led to Nugget run outs. The Lakers must get Kobe the ball on the move and going towards the basket while also involving him a bit more in the P&R as a ball handler.

While looking to involve Kobe, the Lakers still mustn’t ignore their big men. Mozgov and Nene are no slouches as defenders, but Bynum has shown he can muscle both of them and Pau has the both the post skill and foot speed to attack 10 feet and in against either defender. They too must see the ball to make the Denver D make decisions on how they’re going to defend these two. Will they single cover or double them? If they choose the latter, the Lakers’ shooters must hit some shots to make the defense pay. With Goudelock taking a bigger role in the offense and the 2nd unit including him, Murphy, and Kapono, hopefully the long ball will fall.

Defensively, the Lakers must protect against the speedy Lawson in transition while also making sure to slow Andre Miller when he gets a head of steam, as he too will attack the rim in the open court. However, just as important as keeping the pace reasonable, is handling the Nuggets’ half court attack. This means getting out on shooters, contesting shots, and rotating crisply and decisively when the Nuggs run their P&R with Al Harrington. If the Lakers surrender open three pointers to Gallo, Harrington, Lawson, Fernandez, and Afflalo, this game could get out of hand quickly. I know it’s easier said than done, but keeping the penetration to a minimum and then rotating to shooters will be the difference bettween open shots and contested ones. The Lakers need the latter.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on KCAL locally and ESPN nationally. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.

Darius Soriano

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