The playoffs are moving quickly this year. After 4 games in every series, not a single one is tied 2-2 and two of them are already over with the Thunder and Spurs waiting for their 2nd round opponents as I type this. The Lakers have a chance to close out the Nuggets tonight and advance to face those Thunder but doing so will not be easy. The game that sends an opponent fishing is typically the most difficult one to win and while the Lakers have the luxury of trying to do so at home, completing the task will still take a strong performance.
And by “strong”, I really mean one full of effort and focus. At this point in the series, there are no more secrets. X-factors have made their collective appearances, tweaks to rotations and lineups have occurred, and the subtle shifts in game plan to try and counter the X’s and O’s of each side have been put into place. Getting any win – in any game – from here on out will not be about pulling a rabbit from a hat but rather grinding out the game-plan that has been refined in the previous contests.
So, with that said, here are a few things to watch for tonight in this pivotal game 5…
*Will efficient Kobe return? In the first two games of this series Kobe totaled 79 points on nearly 50% shooting. Over the next two games he totaled 44 points on 35% shooting. As I pointed out yesterday, there are factors that contribute to Kobe shooting a low percentage but the fact remains he must find a way to be a bit more efficient with his opportunities. In game 4 he showed more resolve in going to the basket and had much of his success working earlier in the shot clock with power dribbles where he could either pull up for his mid range jumper or get deeper into the paint for lay ins. I’d like to see more of that approach tonight as it’s clear that when he’s assertive with his dribble rather than simply jab-stepping and taking jumpers, he can do damage against Affllalo.
*The Lakers bigs must work through contact and establish the deep post. Game 4 showed that the Nuggets would fight the Lakers’ bigs for every inch of real estate on the low block. Faried pushed and shoved Gasol off the ball all night while McGee and Mozgov did the same to Andrew Bynum. Both Lakers’ big men still fared well on offense but they didn’t get nearly the number of post touches they could have if they’d fought through that contact more and established deeper position. The Lakers’ advantage still lives inside and though McGee has done well to block some shots and the Nuggets wings are digging down more often, the fact remains that Pau and ‘Drew must do damage in the paint for the Lakers to win this game. Gasol especially needs to battle with Faried for position and secure the post so he can go to work. His height advantage is simply too much for the Nuggets to overcome and his superior passing makes double teaming him very difficult. A successful post-centric attack from Gasol can turn a close game into a one sided affair and I hope to see him work to make that happen.
*Can Matt Barnes get on track? He’s only made 6 field goals all series and is shooting 23% over the 4 games. He’s only made 1 of his 14 three point attempts. His activity on the glass and general hustle remain strong but there’s a reason he’s on the bench down the stretch of these games – he can’t be depended on to make the defense pay when the Lakers’ big three draw extra defensive attention. His normal slashing opportunities aren’t as prevalent because of the collapsing D so the areas in which he thrives offensively are more limited. However, that doesn’t change the fact that he needs to find a way to produce some baskets. Maybe he can run out for a lay up or two. Maybe he can get some in-between shots to fall where he slashes but not all the way to the rim. And, of course, maybe he can break through and get a couple of jumpers to fall. But, he needs to make it happen. And soon.
*Controlling the glass is very, very important. In the Lakers’ lone loss they were out-rebounded by 10 and allowed 19 offensive rebounds. That was cleaned up in game 4 but keeping it that way is a major priority. The Lakers must do better at containing dribble penetration and must slow the ball in transition and not allow guys to get all the way to the rim in the open court as both allow the Nuggets bigs to sneak to the front of the rim and clean up misses when the extra help arrives. Make Lawson and Miller shoot jumpers to earn their points and when they do get into the paint the guards that got beat must hustle to the paint and help rebound the ball. Kobe had 8 rebounds in the last game mostly because he was sinking down and clearing the boards when his bigs helped on dribble penetration. Tonight, if the Lakers can’t slow Denver off the dribble, Kobe, Sessions, Ebanks, Barnes, and Blake will need to repeat that effort.
*Commenter RR made a salient point about three point shooting:
In the two close games in the series, Denver went 4/19 and 3/19 from the arc. The Lakers, including the daggers from Blake and Sessions, were 5/17 in Game 4. So, one key reason that the Lakers are up 3-1 is that they are facing one of the few teams in the playoffs that is worse on the 3, overall, than they are. While no one stat tells the whole story of course, this is something to watch, in that if Denver can hit a few 3s, that gives them a much better chance to extend the series.
The Lakers must continue to invite the three point shot (as Denver isn’t particularly good at it) while also contesting them to avoid giving them clean looks. Afflalo is dangerous from the corners while Gallo and Lawson can do damage from the top of the key. Al Harrington can knock that shot down from anywhere and must be rotated too when Denver runs pick and pop actions. Denver isn’t the most disciplined offensive team – part of their strategy is push pace and get up shots quickly, after all – and they will take the shots given to them. That said, the Lakers can’t lose sight of their defensive principles and give up open shots that go uncontested. Denver is a team that can get hot and if the Lakers want to end this series tonight, they’d be wise to not let them do so this evening.