Records: Lakers 14-14 (10th in the West), Nuggets 15-14 (8th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.2 (6th in the NBA), Nuggets 104.7 (9th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.0 (15th in the NBA), Nuggets 103.0 (18th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Darius Morris, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Andrew Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out); Nuggets: Wilson Chandler (out)
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won 5 games in a row, the last two with Steve Nash back quarterbacking the offense. Nash’s return has marked a more diversified offensive attack with his skill set directly correlating to more variety in the sets the Lakers are running in the half court. Of course we’ve seen Nash play in the P&R, his talent on full display as he’s able to pass, shoot, occupy defenders and take on double teams all while making the right read. Several possessions have ended with Nash making brilliant pass/shot decisions and two points (at least) going up on the scoreboard. The Lakers are also deploying Nash as a screener in their HORNS sets, with his ability to move off ball and still be a threat acting as a catalyst for these actions. The old saying is that the player who is most open after a screen is the man that sets it, and defenses are treating Nash as such, reacting to his movements after setting picks while the man he screens for breaks open. The combination of the Lakers’ HORNS sets and Nash maneuvering in the P&R has made a difference in the crispness of their sets and in their late game execution in general. There’s a reason many said Nash coming back would make a difference, and down the stretch of the team’s most recent two games were a perfect example of that.
Of course, Nash being back isn’t the only reason the Lakers are playing better. Their defensive intensity is picking up and being put on display for longer stretches. With the Lakers shifting to more sets with both bigs at the high post, Gasol has been more involved as a passer and that’s opening up the team’s offense even further. Ron has been a beasting off the bench and has proven to be a match up problems for back up bigs on the perimeter and opposing wings in the post.
The team still has improving to do and that will take time. Strides must be made on both sides of the ball in the form of chemistry and synergy and that will come (hopefully) through practice time and togetherness. There are general roster issues in terms of depth and injuries that need to be sorted out or worked through. But this team is showing more confidence, a grittiness, and fighting spirit that is nice to see. If that continues, they can win some much needed games in the meantime while some of the above concerns get sorted out.
The Nuggets Coming in: The Nuggets have won 3 of their last 5 games and are holding on to the 8th seed in a crowded western conference. They seem to win their games solely on the will to continue to attack while wearing down their opponents via their waves of effective players. The Nuggs play a 9 man rotation and it seems all of them have been told to play fast and to attack the paint with reckless abandon.
Of course, the team’s attack mentality is also born of the fact that they have been a mysteriously poor outside shooting team. With Ty Lawson and Gallo on the perimeter, it’s actually Corey Brewer who leads the team in 3 point FG% (at least of regular rotation players), a fact that no one would have believed if you’d told them it would happen before the season. This lack of shooting has led defenses to crowd the paint and force the Nuggets to hit shots, or risk forcing the ball into the teeth of the D to make something positive happen. Too often the team settles for the latter (or hesitates on the former) and it leads to a clunky attack that is easy to defend.
Overall, the Nuggs are still a fine team that is finding its identity. But much like the Lakers, they have some real roster issues that keep them from reaching their perceived ceiling. Until they can sort out how to effectively space the floor, they will be an up and down offensive team with a defense that isn’t doing enough to get them more wins.
Nuggets Blogs: Roundball Mining Company is a great place for all your Nuggets news and analysis. Give them a read.
Keys to game: For years, when the Lakers have traveled to Denver to play the Nuggets on the 2nd night of a back to back, it’s been trouble. Flying into Denver, landing late night (or early morning) and then playing a fast paced Nuggets team at altitude has simply been a recipe for disaster. Few teams coming from the pacific time zone ever get that win and a game under those circumstances has long been considered a “schedule loss”.
Tonight, however, both the Lakers and Nuggets are operating under those same circumstances. After the Lakers dispatched the Knicks at Staples Center mid-day, the Clippers beat the Nuggets last night in the same building. So, it’s difficult to say which team has the advantage after having to play in Los Angeles yesterday. You’d think the Nuggets, playing at home, have the edge. It will be interesting to see if that is true, though, and whether both teams show some tired legs after playing tough games on Christmas Day.
Aside from the travel and the result it has on the players, there are some other things to watch for tonight. As noted above, the Lakers must continue to show a diversified offensive attack. Denver has good defensive players on the wing to throw at Kobe in Iggy and Gallo, so moving him around off the ball is the best strategy. If Kobe plays too much in isolation, he’ll not only allow a top defender to dig in against him but also the rest of Denver’s defense to gear up and slow him down. No, the Lakers are best served running actions for Kobe off the ball and utilizing Nash in the P&R or post ups for Dwight (who has a favorable match up against Koufos) or Gasol (who has a good height advantage over Faried) for sustainable offense.
Defensively, there may not be a more important factor than getting back in transition. Denver wants to run and they want to get baskets at the rim. They will push the ball off the dribble but also love to throw the ball ahead to streaking wings who know how to finish in the paint. Denver also has bigs who love to run (Faried and McGee specifically) so Pau, Howard, Hill, and Ron must be ready to change ends quickly, using good judgement on when to crash the offensive glass and when to retreat defensively. This game can be lost in transition so the Lakers must be careful.
The Lakers must also be attentive on their defensive back boards. The Nuggets are 2nd in the NBA in offensive rebound percentage, working over opponents on the glass to extend possessions. Faried (3.9), McGee (2.2), and Koufos (2.3) combine for over 8 ORebs a game and they must all be marked on the glass. Key will be the Lakers helping the helper on D with the wings dropping down to cover for big men who step up to help wall off dribble penetration. Kobe, Morris, Meeks, and Ron will all need to help on the glass first and worry about the three point line second. Make the Nuggets beat you from the outside, don’t allow them to get easy baskets off put backs or extend possessions so they can attack the paint again (where they can expose the Lakers’ bigs to fouls or get points at the rim).
The Lakers would love to get their 6th straight win and continue their momentum tonight. But it will take sustained effort on both ends and a discipline to not settle for easy shots nor give up on making the extra rotation. If the team plays up to their recent standard, they’ll be right there at the end with the game right there for the taking. Let’s hope they have it in them.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.