Over the years, one of the mantras of this site has been that the Lakers will go as far as their defense takes them. If they work hard and focus on getting stops by playing together they can harness their talents and perform at a high level. If they point fingers, slack on rotations, and fail to work as a unit they’ll be shredded. This year, we’ve seen performances that sit on both poles of this spectrum so neither would surprise these playoffs. That said, they’ll need to be more like their early season defensive selves if they hope to make a deep run.
The Nuggets are a team built around speed and tempo. They want to play fast and they want their opponent to join them. They played at the 2nd fastest pace in the league this year and that led to them leading the league in points per game. That said, their ability to score points isn’t just based off playing fast. They were 3rd in offensive efficiency on the season, were 2nd in field goal percentage, and first in free throws attempted. They also led the league in shots taken at the rim, taking a shade over 34 shots a game at point blank range. Plus, they’re a good ball movement team, leading the league in assists.
Beyond these numbers though, there are areas in which the Nuggets aren’t as strong. They’re only 24th in 3 point field goal percentage and 22nd in FG% on shots from 16-23 feet. They do try to do a good job of laying off these shots, ranking 13th and 30th in shots attempted from these distances respectively, but the fact remains that they’re not a good deep shooting team and any game plan should focus on trying to persuade them into taking these shots more frequently (especially long two pointers).
What are the other keys to slowing them down? Glad you asked…
Denver is the most efficient transition team in the league scoring 1.2 points per play every time they attempt a shot on the break. Ty Lawson is a coast to coast threat and he’s more than comfortable working rim to rim on the break and finishing. Off this ability he’s also able to pick out teammates filling the lanes or running to the three point line. Andre Miller offers the same threat. And while he’s not the road runner that Lawson is, Miller is savvy in the open court and extremely smart in choosing his spots on when to attack the rim in the open court. Plus, with his bigger frame, he’s more of a threat to knock off his man with a strong move while advancing the ball and use that step gained to get deep into the paint and compromise the D.
With this being the case, the Lakers getting back on D, building a wall, and then marking shooters is the single most important defensive principle in the series. The guards must be ready to sprint back once a shot goes up and the SF and two bigs will need to balance chasing offensive boards with getting back to the paint to offer that second line of defense against the advancing ball. This really will be a team effort and a lot of it will depend on floor balance and awareness. With Kobe likely doing most of his damage below the foul line and Sessions having a chance to be assertive by getting into the lane, others will need to make sure they’re in position to transition back. This means a heavy burden will be on Ebanks, Barnes, and one of the bigs to be the first men back. If the Lakers find themselves on the wrong end of 3 on 2’s consistently, the Nuggets will have made this series into the one they want to play.
Pick and Rolls, Pick and Pops
The Nuggets though, aren’t one of the best offensive teams simply by playing a full court game. When they’re operating in the half court, they’re also quite dangerous running their sets. They’re mostly a pick and roll team and use several options off this action to get good shots.
First and foremost is Ty Lawson using the pick to free himself up to get the shots he wants. He’s adept at turning the corner to finish in the paint or stepping back and knocking down the jumper. So, special attention will need to be paid to him to make sure he doesn’t find his rhythm. My preference is that the Lakers go under picks and make him shoot long jumpers rather than fighting over picks and giving him the opportunity to turn the corner or split the hedge to get into the lane.
But Lawson isn’t the only threat. Denver loves to space the floor with shooters so that Lawson (and Miller) can use the threat of his own offense as a way to set up shooters. Gallinari and/or Afflalo will often camp in the strong side corner to make helping more difficult. So, when the PG threatens the paint either shooter offers a release valve to put up an open jumper. Meanwhile, whoever isn’t in the corner is rotating up the opposite sideline looking for a skip pass as the defense rotates to help in the paint. Help that is necessary because Faried, Mozgov, and Koufus are all threats diving down the lane after setting screens. Faried and Mozgov are two that will need attention because they can finish in the paint, even in traffic.
The play that has hurt the Lakers most, however, is the pick and pop in Denver’s small lineups. Al Harrington, particularly, has been a thorn in the Lakers’ side averaging over 18 points a game in their match ups. When Al comes in, he instantly starts to run pick and pops with the PG where he’ll set the screen and then float to the wing where he can get off a three pointer before the help comes. When the Lakers start to adjust by running at him or playing him closer, he’ll then use his solid first step to either drive at his man or threaten the drive and then turn the play into a mid-post set where he’ll attack an off-balance defender. Gallinari can also do many of these same things, so he too can be a problem in the P&P. The Lakers rotations will need to be crisp and on time to deal with these two when they stretch the floor after setting picks. Whether that means Pau and Jordan Hill recovering or one of their teammates rushing to wing isn’t as important as they working to get the job done.
Slowing the Wings
Denver’s offense is free flowing and that means their wings have a lot of freedom to attack whenever they see an opening. This puts a fair amount of pressure the Lakers’ perimeter D – especially with them weakened with Ron suspended and Barnes banged up.
Kobe will have his hands full dealing with Arron Afflalo who has really turned up his game lately. In his last 20 games, Afflalo is putting up 19 points a game while shooting the ball extremely well (52.5% from the floor, including 45.6% from three). He’s become more than a corner three point shooter, working some in the post and using a refined mid-range game to score efficiently from all three levels of the court. This is one series where Kobe can’t play “free safety”, roaming off his man to help his teammates. He’ll be guarding a primary offensive threat and his attention must be on his man.
The same will be true of Ebanks who will be facing Gallinari. While Gallo hasn’t had a good year (and has been even worse against the Lakers) facing a less experienced defender at the start of games may give him some confidence. Devin will need to keep him deep on the perimeter and not give up the types of easy baskets that can get him going. That means contesting shots but not getting blown by after ball fakes and using his good length to make the shots Gallo takes a bit more difficult.
The other main threat is Andre Miller. The savvy vet is part PG part SG for the Nuggs who often use him as a hammer against second units that don’t have the personnel to deal with his unique game. Against smaller PG’s, Miller is quite capable of going into the post and either getting good looks or forcing help and then picking out a teammate for a good shot. Against bigger guards, Miller will use his deceptively good first step to get his shoulder by his man and then use his strength to keep him at bay and finish in the paint. Meanwhile, the Lakers don’t really have a good option to play him. If the Lakers go to a small back court either Blake or Sessions will have to deal with Miller. If the Lakers go big, Barnes, Ebanks, or Kobe offer better defenders but that then removes them from chasing one of Denver’s other wing threats.
This is a series where the Lakers ability to defend in transition will be the biggest key. If they can get back and effectively protect the paint while not surrendering open three pointers, Denver will be forced into half court offense. And while they can be effective there, if the Lakers sag off and force the Nuggets into long two pointers and contested three pointers, their offense can be sufficiently stalled. This is also a series where the Lakers bigs will need to be at their best in help situations. Denver’s pick and pop actions will spread them thin but they’ll need to overcome that by rotating well to stretch PF’s while also still protecting the paint against Denver’s penetrating PG’s.
Understand too that Denver doesn’t have true post up threats so this should free Bynum to be more assertive on D and impose his will on the Nuggets by contesting shots and controlling the glass. If Drew brings his hard hat on that side of the floor, the Lakers should be in very good shape. Then, if he’s supported by Pau and Hill while Kobe, Ebanks, and Barnes do their jobs on the wing the Lakers should be able to keep Denver below their averages. Which, in this series, should be enough as the Lakers offense should be able to score on the other end.