Records: Lakers 28-29 (9th in the West), Nuggets 35-22 (5th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 105.2 (8th in the NBA), Nuggets 106.7 (6th in the NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.3 (T 15th in the NBA), Nuggets 102.7 (13th in the NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Dwight Howard
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufus
Injuries: Lakers: Pau Gasol (out), Jordan Hill (out for the season); Nuggets: none
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have won 11 of their last 15 and Kobe Bryant is on a two game tear. Said another way, the Lakers look as good as they have all season and for the first time in what seems like all season, there’s legitimate hope that the level of play we’re seeing can be a new norm. No, Kobe won’t shoot over 60% for the rest of the season or make 75% of his shots in the 2nd half of games, but the effort, teamwork, and improved D are certainly sustainable.
What hasn’t been said enough, and is a big part of the team’s success, at least as I see it, is that Mike D’Antoni has settled in on a rotation and trusting the players to perform their roles. His substitution pattern has stabilized and guys have seemingly found a comfort level in the fact that they know when they’re going to play, how much action they can expect to see, and what they’re supposed to do when they’re on the floor. Guys like Meeks and Jamison no longer have to look over their shoulder and wonder if they’re going to be pulled (or, as it was earlier in the season, play at all) and it’s brought about a better consistency in their play and boost to the team. Steve Blake’s play has also been very solid as he’s provided stability and leadership from the point guard spot on the 2nd unit.
Of course, not everything is perfect. Issues with protecting the paint defensively and an over reliance on hitting outside jumpers can hurt the team for stretches in any given game. Not to mention the team (especially Nash, Kobe, and Howard) can still be turnover prone when they force the action too much or don’t recognize how the defense is shifting their approach. However, the team we see now seems to get it more than they have all season and that’s true of the coaches all the way down through every player on the team. Needless to say, it’s very good to see on a night to night basis.
The Nuggets Coming in: After a very hot stretch where they won 9 in a row, the Nuggets have only won 2 of their last 6 games. Though, to be fair, all 4 of those losses came on the road. This is an important distinction since the Nuggets remain one of the best home teams in the league, only losing 3 times in 25 games in the Mile High City.
The success of the Nuggets is pretty simple: they’re deep and they have a distinct identity that they play to every night regardless of opponent or circumstance. They have a regular 9 man rotation in which every single player sees at least 18 minutes of action and scores at least 8 points each night. This balance and depth means they can run out a variety of lineups who are all told (and expected to) attack for every second they’re on the floor to try to run the opponent out of the gym.
But while they have a lot of depth, it’s very clear who their best players are and who carries them. Iguodala, Lawson, Gallo, and Faried are their core four and all bring a clear set of skills to the table that help this team win games. They’re versatile, play hard, and understand their specific roles within the team concept. Credit George Karl for getting everyone to understand their roles and for getting the most out of them and their talented teammates.
Nuggets Blogs: Roundball Mining Company is an excellent resource for all your Nuggets news and notes.
Keys to game: With only three teams pulling off the feat, there’s really no formula for beating the Nuggets at home. Especially when you’re on the 2nd night of a back to back and playing a rested Nuggets team as the Lakers are.
So, forget the road/home variable for a second and focus strictly on three major keys it takes to beat the Nuggets on any given night:
- Control the tempo. The Nuggets play at the 2nd fastest pace in the league. They want to run and run and run, tire you out, and then sub in fresh players to run some more. Limiting their ability to do so creates problems for them. In 2 of their 3 losses at home, they were held below 90 possessions.
- Control the backboards. Denver loves to hit the offensive glass and feature three players who grab at least 2 OReb’s a game. Keeping them off your defensive backboards and making them have to work hard to secure misses on their own defensive glass can equate neutralize on of their biggest strengths but also help in keeping the pace of the game in your favor.
- Build a wall around the paint. Denver takes more shots at the rim than any other team in the league. They are not a team of shooters, they are a team of slashers and finishers. And while they have players who are capable of knocking down the deep jumper — Gallo, Lawson, Chandler, Iggy, and even Brewer (though mostly from the corners) — the goal is to make them rely on jumpers and not let them get points in the paint.
Considering these points of emphasis, how do the Lakers go about game planning to win the game? Here are three more keys:
- Offensive discipline. The Lakers must keep turnovers low. They must set good screens to get each other open and must make good, smart passes teammates that are both on time and on target. Steals will turn into baskets and the Lakers can’t afford to get into a trackmeet with this team. The goal should be to dictate the flow of the game through offensive execution. Post up Kobe even against Iguodala and see if George Karl will commit a second defender to him as he’s done over the years. Run the P&R with Dwight and Nash and force the defense to shift and rotate as Dwight dives to the rim. See if Koufus and McGee have the discipline to contain Nash as he turns the corner while still trying to recover into their correct defensive rotation. The team can also run post ups for Dwight and see if he can find the rhythm he had against the Blazers (though, to be fair, against a much better front line than Portland’s). If he can establish the post, the help will come and that will open up the jumpers you want the team taking — open ones via inside-out basketball. Play smart on O and make the Nuggets defend full possessions.
- Everyone to the glass. I know I mentioned that the goal is to keep the Nuggets out of the paint but that’s simply not going to happen for an entire game. Ty Lawson, Iguodala, and Gallo are too good to allow themselves to be bottled up all night — especially against a defense that’s not been good at containing dribble penetration. So, when they do get into the paint, the Lakers’ bigs will have to rotate and that will mean others will have to help on the glass. The Lakers wings must get down the paint and help the helper by boxing out crashing big men. The guards (especially those coming from the top of the key) must close down the FT line and not let long rebounds fall into the hands of the Nuggets. Everyone must do their part by finding a body, hitting him, and then attacking the glass. Faried and McGee will chase the ball for rebounds even if it’s not in their area. The Lakers must respond accordingly.
- Sprint back on D and know who you’re playing against. The Nuggets run for lay ups and dunks. Lawson and Andre Miller have no qualms about taking the ball coast to coast so you must stop the ball. They also will throw the ball ahead so tracking the players on the wings who are filling the lanes is also important. Corey Brewer is a player who will leak out and race the floor for an easy basket. When he’s in the game he must be tracked and ran with. Iguodala wants to aggressively fill the lane but is also adept at handling the ball in the middle of the break. He’s as dangerous off the ball as he is on it and must be tracked whenever a transition from offense to defense occurs. The big men (except Koufus) all run very well and must be bodied and bumped early in transition. Sprint back, get to the paint to build a wall, then find a man and make him back the ball out.
If the Lakers do these things, hit some jumpers along the way, and bring energy, they’ll be right in this game with a very good chance to win. It’s easier said than done, of course, with fatigue and the potential of last night’s win affecting their focus. But this is the task in front of them.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen on ESPN Radio 710AM.