“A series doesn’t start until the home team loses”, the old saying goes. Tonight, then, offers the Lakers the chance to not only start this series, but effectively end it. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series so tonight’s contest is as close to an elimination game as possible without actually sending anyone fishing for the summer.
This will translate to Denver giving the Lakers their best effort. The Nuggets’ backs are against the wall and will fight as hard as possible to make sure they get this game. They’re one of the better home teams in the league with their thin air and ramped up style causing opponents fits. They play at a faster pace, play better defense, rebound better, and shoot better at home.
The Lakers will need to be ready to counter by playing their most disciplined game of the series. This is especially important considering the Lakers focus wained during the 2nd half of game 2 while the Nuggets started to find some things that worked for them on both sides of the floor.
And with that, here are a few keys for success to look for in tonight’s contest:
*The Lakers must take good shots with a balanced floor. The Nuggets have started to run out at every opportunity to try and get easy baskets in transition and early offense. As we’ve discussed at length, the Nuggets best option is to get their shots up before the Lakers defense is set and the easiest way to do that is to streak up the floor before the Lakers bigs can get back to clog up the lane. The best way to counter this is for the Lakers wings to sprint back, turn the ball handler, and give their bigs the chance to get into the play. And this is only accomplished through a balanced floor. When Kobe works in the post or Sessions drives the lane, the two wings must work back and not worry about offensive rebounding. Barnes and Ebanks are good on the O-glass but must abandon their weak side sneak attacks in favor of sound defensive principles.
In addition, the bigs must run back hard. In game two, part of what got Ty Lawson going was his the spy game he was playing with Andrew Bynum. On several possessions, Lawson advanced the ball at a medium pace looking directly at Bynum. On the possessions where Bynum didn’t run back hard, Lawson would turn on the jets and attack the guard/wing in front of him before Bynum could insert himself into the action. Bynum (and Gasol/Hill) must be aware of Lawson (and Miller) using them as gauges in transition D. If they loaf the Nuggets will attack. L.A.’s bigs must understand that their men aren’t the threats, but the advancing ball and wings running the lanes are. Slow them and the Nuggets are fighting an uphill battle. Let them get loose and a loss is that much more likely.
*Make the Nuggets a one man show. Game one showed what Danilo Gallinari is capable of. He was aggressive off the dribble, took his shots in rhythm, and mostly kept the the Nuggets’ offense afloat with his ability to create good shots for himself in the half court. Luckily, he was the only Nugget to find his stride and the result was an easy Laker win. Game two a similar story unfolded but this time it was Ty Lawson doing the damage. His ability to create off the dribble and finish in the lane against a D that was on its heels brought his team back and had them close down the stretch. However, as he was the only Nugget to really do any damage, the Lakers won again.
This is a formula that the Lakers will win with. The Nuggets’ strength isn’t that they have one or two top flight players, but rather that they have 5 or 6 guys that can all get you 15-20 points. The Lakers mustn’t allow multiple guys to get on track and find their offense. If Gallo reverts to his game one form, that’s okay. If Lawson repeats his game two, that’s also fine (though because he’s also an assist threat, the Lakers would do well to try to limit his play making for his teammates). If Afflalo finds his stride for the first time this series, that’s also okay. But the Lakers can’t have all three of these guys scoring 15+ points. Add in Al Harrington knocking down 3 pointers or Corey Brewer running out or Kenneth Faried working the glass and getting shots out of the P&R and things can get out of hand quickly. This is the danger of this team and the Lakers must continue their efforts to make them a one man show. That’s not a winning formula for them.
*Play smarter when JaVale McGee is defending the paint. In the 4th quarter, JaVale McGee played all 12 minutes and blocked 5 Lakers shots. Plus, in that stretch, the Lakers only shot 44% (4-9) in the restricted area and 33% (2-6) on shots from 5-9 feet. Not all of these blocked shots and misses led directly to Denver points but many of them did via the run-outs described earlier. McGee’s presence also served to alter the Lakers attack as penetration started to lead to kick-outs for jumpers rather than shots at the rim.
There’s a way to attack McGee and it’s not off shots from dribble drives or quick hitting cuts. It’s through power post ups where you make him defend the ball and by driving at him and then dishing to his man for easy baskets. When both McGee and Andew Bynum share the court, Bynum is shooting 100% (7-7) from inside 5 feet. A lot of these makes stem from McGee having to help on other Lakers but that’s the point – McGee is an aggressive help defender that will put his team at risk for put backs and easy baskets via dump-offs as he hunts blocked shots. In game 2 the Lakers got away from looking to force McGee to help and then dishing to ‘Drew and instead attacked him by themselves and the results were poor. The Lakers must be smarter in how they attack McGee – they must draw him and dish; they must make him defend one on one in the post against Bynum. These types of shots will produce quality looks.
*When the double comes, make them pay with ball movement. George Karl is not shy about double teaming the Lakers’ threats. Bynum’s seen consistent double teams all series. Pau and Kobe have seen their share of them as well, but mostly when they get inside 15 feet on the low block. When the doubles have come, the Lakers have made the key passes – even when the role players stopped knocking down shots consistently as game two progressed.
Karl is likely to ramp up his help, especially on Kobe. As we discussed yesterday, the Lakers are working wrinkles into their sets to get Kobe free from Afflalo completely or at least get him the ball where Afflalo can’t really slow him down very easily. The result has been an in-rhytm Kobe who’s scored 79 points on 49% shooting over the first two games. If Kobe keeps that up, this series will be over soon. So, I fully expect Kobe to see more hard double teams after he catches the ball and a defensive scheme that shifts the 2nd defender towards him more often. Kobe mustn’t lose patience when the D helps, but rather must pick out his open teammates who must reward him by making the shots afforded to them or the extra pass to an even more open teammate. Ball movement will crack the code on any double team heavy scheme. But, to do so, the first pass must be made out of the initial trap. In past series against the Nuggets, Kobe’s had no issues making these passes. That will need to continue as this series progresses.
As has been the case in the first two games, discipline is the key to a victory tonight. Smart shot taking, adherence to the defensive game plan, and focus on the little things will matter. The energy will be off the charts to start the game and the Lakers must weather that, but as the game advances they can tear away the fury of the crowd with efficient, deliberate attacks. Last night the Heat and the Thunder both went into the enemies’ lair and took the heart of their foe. Tonight the Lakers get their chance to do the same.
*Statistical support provided by NBA.com