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 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.
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).
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.