Game 4 offers the Lakers a chance at redemption from their poor performance just two days ago. In that contest, the Lakers played a particularly undisciplined game and credit the Nuggets for taking advantage (and then some). The Nuggets played harder, smarter, and executed their game plan better. As much as I can look at the Lakers doing so many things wrong that helped give the Nuggets the win, the Nuggets earned their W.
So, for the Lakers to bounce back, they must get back to basics while also countering some of the adjustments that George Karl made in game 3. A few things to watch during the game:
*Bynum’s effort level and preparedness may be the single biggest factor for Lakers’ success in this series. The Lakers can overcome a bad shooting night from Kobe. They can even overcome a game played at a quicker tempo. Neither are ideal and the preference is for those things to break the Lakers’ way, but if they don’t the Lakers can still win. If Bynum is fully engaged in the contest and ready to compete and impact the game, they can win. In game 3, Bynum was admittedly not fully ready to play. He gave up deep post position while playing one on one defense and wasn’t in good help position while playing defense.
Today, that must be different. Bynum must be ready to play ball screens higher and must read the drives of the Nuggets’ guards in order to be in position to help. He must respect the offensive games of the man he’s guarding (especially McGee) and be more attentive on the defensive glass to deny second possessions. And, offensively, he must be aggressive in fighting for position and demanding the ball. His teammates must look for him more, of course, but he can aid them by earning deep position and punishing the Nuggets’ bigs on the block. George Karl inserted Timofey Mozgov into the starting lineup partially because of the perception that he can guard Bynum better on the block. Bynum didn’t do anything in game 3 to disprove that theory. Today, he must run the floor hard and look to bury his man in the stanchion at every opportunity. He’s certainly capable, he simply must bring the effort to do so.
*Gasol must join Bynum by attacking the paint. One of the sadder sights for a Laker fan was seeing Pau Gasol act as a floor spacer behind the three point line down the stretch of game 3. While other Lakers were in attack mode, Pau floated around the perimeter as an outlet and release valve. Some of this was by design and some of it was just Pau letting the flow of the game dictate his role in it, but the result was an underused all-star who had a match up advantage over his man. Pau must get back to attacking the undersized Kenneth Faried either in the low post or from the elbow in the Lakers’ horns sets. Pau’s always been great at making the right pass decisions, but he must also get a little greedy and look for his own shot more when the match ups favor him. He was the only Laker to shoot over 50% in game 3 yet he got too few looks at the basket.
But Pau, like Bynum, must also step up his game defensively and on the glass. The Nuggets grabbed 19 offensive rebounds in game 3 and while not all of those were Gasol’s fault, his effort on that end certainly aided those numbers. Faried had 6 Oreb’s on his own and Pau must be better at helping against penetration while still recovering to rebound. He must also be ready to sprint back on D and help build the wall against the Nuggets advancing PG’s so that easy shots in the paint can’t be earned so easy and quickly. Today is a day the bigs must raise their games and while we often discuss Bynum when referencing that, Pau is not exempt.
*One adjustment George Karl flashed in game 2 and carried over into game 3 was putting larger defenders on the Lakers’ PG’s in order to neutralize their 1/2 P&R’s with Sessions/Blake screening for Kobe (or vice versa). The Lakers have been good at using this action all season (especially after Sessions arrived) to create good offensive looks either via the PG shaking free or by forcing a switch so Kobe gets isolated against a smaller man. Karl’s adjustment has sought to eliminate that latter advantage an the Lakers must look to tweak their actions in this set to compensate. I hope to see more aggressive drives from Sessions and Blake to force the D to respond. Too often in game three, they looked tentative when turning the corner and seemed more interested in getting Kobe the ball. Instead, they need to look for their own offense to put the D on their heels and make them respond and question of sticking so closely with Kobe is the best plan while the ball gets into the lane and creates 3 on 2 opportunities. I’d also like to see Kobe get and set better screens in this action to free himself or his teammate better. Setting more solid picks will only create more space for everyone to operate in and can only lead to better scoring chances.
*The Lakers must get better production from their wings – especially Matt Barnes. It’s not clear if Barnes’ ankle is the issue or not, but he’s not been nearly as effective on offense since he returned from injury and has been relegated to a spot up shooter. The problem is that Barnes has not been knocking down the shots to make the defense pay, only emboldening the Nuggets to continue to leave him open behind the arc. So, instead of spacing I’d like to see Barnes slash more into the gaps and try to get some offense going to the rim. Again, the Lakers shot 25 three pointers in game 3 and Barnes took 5 of them; more than half his shots came from behind the arc.
Wing production is also important because it means we see less of the Blake/Sessions back court. At this point, I’m beating a dead horse when complaining about how this pairing doesn’t put either player in a position to succeed. So, let me just say that the Lakers wings can do everyone a favor by playing smarter (Ebanks) and by being more consistent scoring threats (Barnes) to ensure that they can see the floor in the minutes they need to and help the team win. By going small the Lakers allow the Nuggets to play their dual PG lineup without consequences. Needless to say this is an advantage for the Nuggets that the Lakers can’t keep giving them game after game.
While this game isn’t a must have, it is a game the Lakers need if they hope to get control back in the series. The Nuggets have confidence now and a 2-2 series would only bolster that. The Lakers must bring back their game 1 focus and effort level while incorporating some of their game 2 wrinkles that freed Kobe and Bynum to be effective offensive threats. And, if they can get back to controlling the offensive flow of the game, their defense will follow. This is the formula that will lead to a win and both teams know it. The Lakers simply must do it.