Playoff Preview Part I: The Denver Nuggets

Darius Soriano —  April 27, 2012

The playoff match ups are set and the the Lakers will face the Denver Nuggets for the chance to advance to round 2. The Nuggets are one of the hotter teams going right now, winning 8 of their last 10 games – including their final 4 to close the season. The Nuggs offer depth, athleticism, youth, shooting, speed, and strong coaching. They are a strong team that have the ingredients to give the Lakers a tough match up. This may not be evidenced by the 3-1 regular season series win by the Lakers, but by digging down you’ll see that their three losses were all by 6 points or less while their lone win had the largest margin (9 points) of any team in any of the games. As I’ve said before, the Western Conference playoff bracket is a minefield and the Nuggets are as dangerous as any team out there.

With that said, we start our series preview with what the Lakers will need to do on offense to score the points they’ll need to keep pace with one of the more explosive teams in the league…

The Overview:
The Nuggets are not a strong defensive team. They rank 20th in defensive efficiency for the season allowing 106.2 points per 100 possessions. They have a few wing defenders in Danilo Gallinari, Corey Brewer, and Arron Afflalo who all offer good to excellent perimeter D, but their PG’s aren’t strong on that end and their bigs, as a group, are only average. Furthermore, in their last 20 games they’re 22nd in defensive rebounding rate and are vulnerable on the glass due to their penchant for playing an undersized PF (Harrington) a lot of minutes, the lack of quickness of some of their bigs (Mozgov, Koufus), and the propensity of McGee to challenge shots at the rim with his man then slipping in behind him to clean up misses.

What Denver does do is force turnovers. Opponents commit 15.6 turnovers against them nightly (6th in the NBA).  They’ll pressure passing lanes and challenge shots at the rim, blocking shots and going the other way. And because the Nuggets have quickness at nearly every spot on the floor, they’re very good at turning those miscues into points. That said, Denver also allows the 4th most assists per game, so good ball movement, teamwork, and a commitment to hitting the open man can break down their D and lead to makable shots.

This defensive profile means the Lakers can develop a specific plan of attack against this team that can lead to success, should they play with discipline and stick to said plan.

It Starts with the Bigs:
As we’ve said for nearly most of the year, the Lakers advantage lies inside. With Bynum and Gasol, the Lakers have to two most skilled big men in this series and it’d serve them well to work the ball through them on most possessions to try and establish the tempo to the game at hand and the series on the whole. Phillip was reviewing the first match up between these teams and explains what he saw and how it worked:

In their first match up of the season Kobe began a game versus the Nuggets distributing the ball which led to Pau knocking down a series of mid-range jumpers. With Pau pulled away from the basket (mainly at the pinch post) and hitting shots, the Nuggets really didn’t have an answer for Bynum who went off for 29 and 13. With Pau and Bynum working well within the high and the low post, the Lakers were able to create a lot of high percentage shots.

This high-low action should serve the Lakers well this series, especially working out of their “horns” sets where Pau is the offensive initiator from the elbow area and Bynum ducking in for post ups after setting screens on the weak side. This base set should give Pau open looks from 16-18 feet (a shot he’s more than capable of hitting) as well as give Bynum the space he needs to work down low against any of the Nuggets’ big man trio.

Having Bynum low and Pau high also sets up situations where double teaming Bynum produces the easiest outlets for him to pass to open teammates as this set up is basically a 4 out, 1 in set. This will make it so the Nuggets either have to double from the same side wing or the opposite block (with Pau’s man) and both of those doubles set up easy reads for Drew. Of course, Bynum will need to be patient and recognize when and where the double is coming from but if he does read it correctly, it will lead to open shots.

We mustn’t forget Pau on the block either, though. At the start of games, Pau will likely match up with Kenneth Faried who will be surrendering several inches to the big Spaniard. Pau too should also be featured on the low block (preferably the left side) where he can use that size to his advantage by shooting his turnaround jumper or spinning quickly off his man where he can get easier shots at the rim. Pau’s craft and skill on the block should be utilized a great amount against the rookie as he is both a scoring and a passing threat once down there.

Kobe’s Role:
In the three games that Kobe played against the Nuggets he was mostly dreadful on offense. He shot 19 for 69 (27.5%) including only 2-17 from three point land. Facing off against the Afflalo and Gallinari duo meant that Kobe was always shooting against size and length and due to their ball denials, he was usually working from 20 feet and out on most possessions.

To counter this, Kobe must use screens better by looking to work tightly off the picks to give himself the separation he needs to make clean catches. He can also do himself (and the Lakers’ O) some good by using his man’s aggression against him by cutting more back door and moving towards the basket when working off the ball. Kobe’s best served looking to work 18 feet and in after making the catch rather than making the catch further out and trying to drive to spots on the floor that are closer to the rim. If he can successfully work to make his catches easier and receive the ball below the FT line, he can compromise the D and put the Nuggets in situations where they’ll need to choose between single covering him in spots where he’s most dangerous or shifting their defense his way (which will then open up his teammates to be more dangerous).

Building on that last point, Kobe may not have shot well against the Nuggs but he did do a very good job of involving his teammates. In two of the three games he played vs. Denver, he tallied 9 assists (both Lakers’ wins) working in the P&R and in the low post where George Karl deemed him too much of a threat without committing extra defenders. That ability to compromise the D simply by getting to key spots on the floor can be just as damaging as a 30 point night and it’d serve the Lakers well if they worked to get Kobe into those positions.

Ramon Sessions and Tempo:
Sessions only played in one of the four match ups during the regular season but his presence in this series will be very important. First off, he’ll need to set the right tempo for the Lakers’ offense. As mentioned before, the Lakers are best served playing inside-out and that means allowing the bigs to get up court and set themselves up. Sessions will need to recognize where he can push the ball and when he’ll need to pull back in order to initiate the Lakers sets. As mentioned earlier, the Lakers must try to pound the Nuggets inside and a lot of their ability to do so will be dependent on how Sessions runs the show; how he organizes the offense and his decision making at the start of a possession.

However, even though this is the case, I don’t want Sessions to simply be a conservative PG that is only looking to run half court offense. Sessions’ speed is an asset that can disrupt the Nuggets’ D (much like Lawson’s can the Lakers’) and his ability to advance the ball quickly and get quality shots for himself or his teammates can be key to scoring the types of easy baskets that can be the difference between a win and a loss. Understand that the Nuggets are last in transition defense allowing 1.2 points per play. Their Centers don’t change ends well and their PG’s lack the size (Lawson) and quickness (Miller) to be deterrents to a quickly advancing ball, so Sessions can do damage if choose his spots wisely it can really boost his team’s chances.

In the half-court, Sessions also needs to be smart but aggressive. He can take advantage of the Nuggets in P&R situations by using his quickness to turn the corner and then get into the lane to get shots off or pick out teammates. In the April 13th game, Sessions did a good job of probing coming off the screen, collapsing the D, and then kicking the ball back out to shooters who spaced around the arc. If he can duplicate this effort and also do a better job than he has lately of converting on his own shots in the lane, he can be an X-factor on offense that the Nuggets don’t have an ideal defensive answer for (save for putting one of their wings on him, which only weakens them in other ways).

In Conclusion:
The Lakers have the tools to beat this team on the offensive side of the ball. If they play to their strengths by featuring their bigs, tweak some of the ways they get Kobe involved, and have Sessions using his speed and decision making to burrow holes into the belly of Denver’s defense, they can exploit this team on this side of the ball. However, and this can’t be stressed enough, it will take a disciplined attack that the the Lakers haven’t always shown this season.

There’s not a team in the league that sucks you into playing their style of play more than the Nuggets and the Lakers must keep that fact constantly on the front burner of their minds and fight the urge to get into a shootout with this team. They’ll pressure the ball, take quick shots, and then not struggle to get back. And while some of those things will invite the Lakers to respond in kind, they simply must stick to their plan. Whether they can do so or not will play a major role in who wins this series.

Darius Soriano

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34 responses to Playoff Preview Part I: The Denver Nuggets

  1. Agree with danger Nuggets present. Al Harrington concerns me. He is capable of hitting big shots at big times. Glad Wilson Chandler is on the self.

    Agree western conference is a loaded minefield. OKC is not going to have a catwalk versus Dallas. Would be surprised but not shocked if Mavs won series.

    Grizzlies vs. Clippers is pick em
    My pick is Clips due to Chris Paul.

    Spur vs. Utah is pretty safe but

    Spur vs. Clips or Grizz is a toss up …

    Lakers, Spurs, OKC, Grizz or Clips can
    win the west.

    Strap up.

  2. I think Sessions has been a nice pick up but now is the time that he needs to earn his big payday and show his worth in the playoffs. He will be a large influence on how far we go this year. And since it is his first time playing in the post season in a contract year hopefully he raises his value tremendously. I don’t know if he had it in him but I hope he does. If he can hit some big shots like Horry and Fish thats all it takes.

  3. Al Buckets is the one who concerns me most, as he always seems to bring his A game against the Lakers. Perimeter D will be critical, especially with Artest out and Barnes’ status somewhat iffy.

    Also, let’s hope the refs play it somewhat straight. One game the Lakers won in Denver earlier this year was arguably the worst-officiated game I’ve seen since the days when Utah would mug anyone at will in the Delta Center back in the 90s but never once hear a whistle. That can’t go on again or this will be a long series.

  4. I have to say this is the most lopsided series roster wise. Even without MWP. It’s just pretty obvious who wins this. I almost hope Denver gets a game so we only miss MWP fr one game next series. That’s the ibtereststing series. Dallas/OKC. This is a toss up for me btw. I’m 50/50. OKC has no low post scoring and is a bad half court offensie team. I worry about them in a series where Dirk might just win it by himself. That’s a fun series. Clippers get run over by Memohis I am guessing.

  5. My main concern is perimeter scoring. No one outside of Kobe is a sure thing. Positive sign to see in wins he got 9 assists. Lakers need him to avg in that range this series.

  6. This feels like its going to be a 7 game series.

    Lakers are without their best defender. Barnes is injured. Kobe struggles against Denver. And we can never trust which Bynum is going to show up.

    Hopefully this week off gives some energy to Pau, and helps Ramon’s shoulder heal.

  7. Got a bad feeling about this series.

  8. This series is far from lopsided, however I do see us winning in less than 7 (most likely 6 – but possibly 5). This is not because we are as good as the 2001 Lakers (far from it), however the Nuggets are no pot of gold either. Kobe needs to go off. I am OK with starting out with the inside out stuff, but if Pau + AB are not on, KB needs to go fully off leash.

  9. The excerpt from Phillip got me drooling already:

    “Kobe began a game versus the Nuggets distributing the ball which led to Pau knocking down a series of mid-range jumpers. With Pau pulled away from the basket (mainly at the pinch post) and hitting shots, the Nuggets really didn’t have an answer for Bynum”

    I close my eyes and I can see the play being executed…

    Sweet.

  10. Robert

    Kobe shot 29% aganist Denver.
    All 3 wins were close with one coming from a Danelo missed layup.
    No Artest and badly sprained Barnes ankle leaves us very thin at the 3.
    Denver had won 8 of last 10.
    Andrew has trouble getting back in LA now add a mile high to the mix.
    Karl will double Andrew and throw in zones that Brown has never figured out.
    Denver plays 10 guys and we have 7.

    Still think it’s a 5 game series?

  11. Aaron your purple and gold blindness is now becoming silly. Read the above and perhaps you may learn something.

  12. You know who the Lakers could use right now. Luuuuuuuuuke!

    Tough matchups off the bench who sticks Miller? Someone mentioned harrington has a meniscus tear hill should be able to check him. And I may cry if brown puts blake/sessions on miller/lawson.

    Any game over 100 favors denver heavily.

  13. The dreaded Session Blake combination may see court time due to MWP absence. Especially if Barnes is limited.

    Sessions Blake is a defensive disaster.

  14. D. Williams wants a contract before the Olympics. Think the Lakers FO can make it happen?

    Let Sessions walk.

    Ammesty MWP, who through absolutely no fault of his own, has been suspended 13 times in 13 seasons (hmmm, nope, that’s not a pattern at all). And yes its so unfair that he got seven games off even though Love stepped on Scola’s face.

    Personally, I think it improved Scola’s looks and he should thank Love profusely. But I digress …

    Maybe it would help the Lakers to continue to rid themselves of players who can’t get it together, regardless of why they can’t get it together.

  15. The outlier here, interestingly enough, is McGee, who seems to have given both Bynum and Gasol trouble this year. While Bynum scored on McGee pretty much at will in their two meetings, McGee gave even better than he got, outperforming Bynum by just under seven points per 36 minutes. Likewise, Gasol’s scoring, assist and plus-minus numbers were all down when McGee was on the court. It’s not surprising that McGee would be a wild card; what is surprising is that it might actually be for a positive reason.

    When the two guards have shared the court this season, Bryant’s down nine points per 36 minutes off his season scoring average, 14 percent on field-goal attempts and 21 percent on 3-point accuracy, and he gets to the free-throw line about half as often as he does when Afflalo’s on the bench. That dovetails with the numbers from their two matchups last year — Kobe’s scoring (26.9 to 20.7), field-goal percentage (45 percent to 38 percent), 3-point percentage (32 percent to 14 percent) and free-throw attempts (7.6 to 6.1) all dipped when Afflalo was on the court. What didn’t drop appreciably, however, were his field-goal attempts — Kobe actually put up two more shots per 36 minutes than his season average when Afflalo was on the floor this year.

  16. the lakers have been going through the motions on defense for the last two months. now that games matter, they are going to pulverize the nuggets.

  17. Denver doesn’t scare me. Karl is horrible, an even matchup with the clueless MB. Nene is gone, so no low post scoring. Lakers in 5.

  18. This is the most crucial season of the NBA year. We, fans should believe in this team right now. To the players, coaches, strategy and adjustments. We blame one, we blame all. Its hard to say but if we lose in any of this series it would be disaster to watch this team now dismantle in the offseason. Don’t be shocked if Bynum is gone and Pau is gone. They still have a month to have a playoff run and a title to bring in LA.

    We should be thankful right now because for all the drama, the changes they’ve been through, they are still the 3rd seed in the West. We fans had been supportive all year and we should have more faith right now in this team.

    We still BELIEVE!!!

  19. @16 No one can just turn on good D who hasn’t played it (consistently) for months. Takes tuning to be all on the same page, thinking ahead, trusting, covering, communicating, moving in unison. Lakers haven’t shown that. They are capable of more than they have shown, but consider how SAS carved them up.

  20. Ko @ 15 you should throw the source in there if you are direct block quoting like that, just so everyone knows where that comes from.

    The recipe for winning this series is pretty obvious to me: control the tempo, take care of the ball and feed the bigs.

    Denver loves to run, dont get in a trackmeet with them. Dont force bad shots that lead to runouts, and dont force passes that spark their transition game. Afflalo plays Kobe well, but we have a clear advantage down low. Pau vs Faried? Cmon, Faried is like 6’6″ Pau can shoot over the top of him with ease and initiate the offense for others from the elbow unimpeded. And Koufos, McGee and Mozgov guarding Bynum? Drew should beast.

    And Mr. Brown, if you’re reading, please no Sessions/Blake backcourt while Miller is in the game. He will eat them alive in the post, possession after possession. Im thinking Ebanks or even Eyenga as the backup 2 this series.

    Any thoughts for the backup 2 spot?

  21. Sbdunks

    Sorry about that it is a challenge to copy and paste with Ipad and the part that listed Ball don’t lie as source was missed. Just saw that this morning. I knew no one would figure that such well researched information would come from me.

    Thanks

  22. Haha. I guess this is a Lakers blog :( We are still talking about this boring series? We have OKC against Dallas amd we are talking about Lakers? We have the Jazz being able to match up with the Spurs on the inside amd out amd we are talking Lakers? We have Memphis hosting the Clippers and we are talking Lakers? We have Knicks and Heat and we are talking Lakers? Even the Sixers have pretty much the same talent as the Bulls and we are talking Lakers? This blog started out as a NBA blog with a heavy emphasis on the Lakers. Well… With this lopsided series I think we should put our energy into the several compelling playoff series in round one. I mean I’m a kid in a candy story with those series I just mentioned.

  23. Clover,
    I normally don’t respond to new people. But you asked such a great question without knowing it. Yes is the answer. Yes you can just flip a d switch. With offense you just can’t turn it on. Because offense isn’t as much about effort. Defense is half effort/will and skill. So I have seen many teams turn their defense on when the playoffs start.

    SBDunks,
    I have sme thoughts on the back up SG spot ;) I’m glad you asked. Eyenga. He is our only back up SG. So he might as well play 5 min when Kobe sits and we need to guard a guy 6-5/6-6). Eyenga really looked good. He is an NBA player no doubt. Everyone saw it. Considering we don’t have another SG besides Kobe… I’m glad we saw Eyenga could play.

  24. I just don’t see how the Lakers can lose this, unless Bynum keeps loafing around and starts shooting a reality program about children in very big, grown-up bodies.

  25. No, Aaron. No.

    “Forum Blue and Gold: A Lakers Blog. Thoughts, reflections, and the odd rant on the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA (even the Clippers).”

    Thoughts on other series and on the league are more than welcome. However, please stop trying to force the conversation in the direction you’d like. And, also, a word of advice, you’re coming off as condescending in more and more comments. This then comes off as baiting and insulting. This then inspires more comments that come towards you that use that same tone. Which, in turn, drags down the comments into an abyss of infighting. Please try to adjust. Thanks.

  26. Ah, yes… more Aaron wisdom about how the great Lakers roster somehow equates to a lopsided playoff advance.

    That reminds me of these two gems (below) from last year, right before the Mavericks swept that historically talented Lakers team into summer vacation. If talent alone were what decided things, Aaron’s boy LeBron would have earned his elusive first ring years ago.

    Aaron wrote on April 30, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Should I be the first to say it? Too bad. I will be. This is the most talented Lakers team one through eight of all time.

    Aaron wrote on April 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    We have five star players and one of the clucthest spot up shooters of all time in Fisher. Then we have a NBA starting PG off our bench and another starting SF in Barnes off the bench. Remember Barnes started for a good Magic team last year. Shannon is our ninth best player. And he isn’t that bad. But one through eight I think this is the best Lakers team off all time. I want arguments from someone who has a showtime team that can compete with this 2011 team talent wise.

    If the 2012 Lakers don’t bring it to the floor each night, they will lose. That’s a fact.

  27. sbdunks: it’s likely going to be blake. I’m not a fan of him and sessions lineup but if it keeps kobe from playing 40 mins this series I’m all for it.

    Anxious to see how sessions plays his first playoff game. Pau went off his laker playoff debut hoping sessions does the same.

  28. I seriously don’t think this Denver team should be underestimated.

    Denver’s strength is exactly the Lakers biggest weakness – speed and pick and roll play. Plus, when they run, they render Bynum useless – and actually a liability, because he can’t run up and down the floor for more than 2 minutes at a time.

    I’m hoping to see a lot of Pau at the 5 and Hill at the 4 this series.

    Ideal lineup is probably Sessions-Kobe-Barnes (hopefully healthy) – Hill-Pau.

    Lakers will be a strong offensive threat and be mobile on the defensive end – especially since Denver doesn’t have any good lurking 7 footers.

  29. Completely agree Cdog. If Andrew is not getting back then his minutes should be limited as he is the biggest potential liability getting back. One block every 15 minutes dosen’t make up for 6 or so 5 on 3′s or easy dunks by Denver centers.

  30. sbdunks @ # 21 is correct. The key to this series is going to be Tempo/Pace. If we can control it, this series becomes significantly easier. If not, we’re in for a dogfight.

    Also will be interested to see how Coach Mike Brown counter-reacts to Coach Karl once Denver utilizes the small ball strategy by playing either Gallo or Harrington @ the four. MWP would have been the perfect option.

    Coach Karl will send doubles and probably even triples @ Drew, negating his offensive impact. Once this occurs, the question then becomes, will Drew stay engaged or will he check out because he can’t produce offensively?

    Don’t believe this series will be as easy as some believe that it will be. However, I believe that we’ll prevail in six.

  31. 1/decaf1/2regular April 28, 2012 at 11:19 am

    i think too many are leaning on the side of caution here. i can understand some level of concern considering denver can pose matchup problems with their speed/depth and karl is a great coach but c’mon we’re still talking about a team with koufos fariad and mcgee in the middle… and since when does anyone fear freakinmcgee?? hes still an underdeveloped human highlight pogo stick with very little nba skills.

    and whats this silly amnesty ron talk right before the playoffs? hes still one of the best defenders in the league. even jim buss has gone on record multiple times saying hes highly esteemed under his own defensive metrics.. give it up already.

  32. 1/decaf 1/2 regular –

    “even Jim Buss has gone on record multiple times saying he’s highly esteemed under his own defensive metrics” <— Now that's pretty funny.

    How effective defensively do you expect MWP to be in this upcoming series?

  33. Does anyone have a link for the Bulls-76ers game?