Records: Lakers 55-22 (1st in West), Nuggets 51-27 (3rd in West, 4.5 games behind Lakers)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 108.9 (11th in NBA), Nuggets 112.0 (2nd in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 103.4 (5th in NBA), Nuggets 107.2 (16th in NBA)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Nuggets: Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Johan Petro, Nene
UPDATE: It’s been reported by Mike Bresnahan of the LA Times that Kobe will sit out tonight’s game. It looks like Sasha will start in his place in a classic doghouse to the penthouse situation. Obviously this changes many aspects of the game plan tonight and we’ll see if Artest, Odom, and Gasol step up their offensive games to compensate for Kobe being out. Before the game, Phil mentioned that resting Kobe would be an option and it looks like he chose this game.
In more injury news, Chris Andersen listed as a game time decision will play tonight for the Nuggets after missing the last two games with a sprained ankle. Now, back to the preview.
The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers last played on Sunday and that was a defeat to the Spurs whiched lowered their record to 6-4 in their last ten games. So, that’s three days of rest since the last game, but it’s also three days to stew over a bad loss on national TV and three days of practice to try and work out the kinks. At this point, I don’t think it needs to be said that the Lakers need to play better and that there is little time left for them to get on track, but I’ve gone and said it anyway. Every game is a challenge at this point, but a quality win on the road would be a good place to start to get things going in the right direction. The cynic would say that even a win tonight could be followed up with a bad loss in the next game. And that could be true, but you have to start somewhere and even a team that can be described as “up and down” has to be up at some point, right? Why not get to that point tonight, is all I’m saying.
The Nuggets Coming in: The Nuggets have won three games in a row but that has not been the norm for them in recent weeks. Before this nice stretch, the Nuggets had lost five of six (including 4 of 5 on the road). And there are several reasons for the Nuggets lack luster play of late. First is injuries. Around the trade deadline, the Nuggets were actively looking for a low cost big man that could come in and play some minutes for them. Even though the Nuggs have a solid front line, they are thin behind their top three players and they wanted to have a contingency in case there was an injury or if they needed an extra body on any given night. Well that foresight of wanting a big man (one that they did not attain) proved correct as Kenyon Martin has missed the last 17 games with a left knee issue and has only recently been cleared to start physical activity. You add Martin’s injury to Chris Andersen’s sprained ankle that has had him out of the last two games and the Nuggs are throwing out a big man rotation that prominently features Johan Petro and Malik Allen. Ugh.
The second reason that the Nuggets have been faltering is the absence of their head coach, George Karl. We all know that Karl has been enduring treatment for the throat cancer that he was diagnosed with (get well soon coach). And while this is nothing against stand in coach Adrian Dantley, the Nuggets don’t quite have that same edge without the fiery Karl pacing the sidelines. Eventhough the Nuggs still have Billups and Anthony as leaders on the court, they’ve lost their leader in the huddle and in the practices and in the film rooms and that has (seemingly) taken its toll. You combine the absence of Karl to the injuries to key players and you have a recipe for what Denver is going through right now.
Nuggets Blogs: Go read what Jeremy is doing over at Roundball Mining Company. He’s a one man wrecking crew.
Keys to game: This is the fourth time the Lakers have faced the Nuggets this season, so at this point there isn’t much insight from an X’s and O’s persective that we can lend. Just know that Denver is up in the season series 2-1, so a Lakers win tonight would even the series and give LA two straight wins against this team.
Just because I said these much insight to be given, doesn’t mean I won’t repeat what needs to be done anyway. On offense, the Lakers need to attack inside. As I mentioned earlier, the Nuggets are down two key big men and even though Andersen is a game time decision tonight, Denver just doesn’t have a lot of reliable interior defenders to slow down Gasol and Odom. Pau needs to work the ball 12 feet and down and Odom will need to where his agressive hat tonight and attack the basket off the dribble and cut/slash to the rim on Pau post ups. Also understand that Nene can be foul prone. With that in mind, an attack mentality is even more important because he will reach in and challenge shots and that could lead to seeing the afforementioned back ups even earlier than usual.
As for Kobe, he’s facing a defender that has done well against him in the past in Arron Afflalo tonight. And with Kobe coming off two sub par shooting games in a row, I don’t know if he’ll get back on track this evening. I’ve always said that it’s pretty rare for Kobe to have two straight bad games, but that’s where we stand right now. Will he have three? If he wants to avoid that reality, it would be a good thing if the touch on his jumper returned. If Kobe can knock down some 18-20 footers early, it should give him the room he needs to drive the ball. Also worth looking out for is how Dantlely deals with Kobe on the post. In the last meeting agsint Denver, Kobe dominated the second half of the game by facilitating the offense from the weakside block when the Nuggets sent the double team at him time and time again. Will Dantley employ the same strategy? if he does, I think our cutters and outside shooters will get plenty of good looks both in the paint and behind the three point line that the Lakers will need to knock down.
On defense the Lakers need to slow down ‘Melo and Billups. In the last meeting, Ron Artest had one of his best defensive games of the year has he bodied and harrassed ‘Melo all over the court. Anthony ended up having an awful evening as he finished with 21 points on 19 shots and also committed 8 turnovers. If Artest can put in a similar effort tonight and yield anywhere close to the same results it will go a long way towards a Lakers victory. As for Billups, nothing has changed with this man’s game in the past 8 seasons. He’s still got the quickness to beat you off the dribble and still loves the pull up three in transition and when his defender goes under the screen on the P&R. Whoever is on Chauncey tonight (and I expect several different Lakers to spend some time on him) needs to chase him over screens and not play defense in a retreating position. Play him tight and trust the help that should be in the paint. The last thing the Lakers need is for Billups to get hot from behind the arc. We all remember game two of this season’s series when Billups caught fire early and never cooled down. Avoiding that type of performance is crucial.
From a team wide perspective, the Lakers must be aware of the pace tonight. Denver plays at the 5th fastest pace in the league and will run every chance they get (escpecially since they’re at home). Ty Lawson is back from his shoulder injury and when he and JR Smith come into the game the entrire flow of the game can go from 65mph to 90 in an instant. The ball will be raced up the court and shots will be taken very quickly. The Lakers can’t fall into the trap of playing this fast and must be selective with their own run outs. Dever is a middle of the road defensive team and they will give you openings to attack, but it takes patience and smarts to exploit it. Indiscriminant bum rushes towards the basket will not do it. If the Lakers are precise and play to their strengths, they should be able to get a win against an undermanned Nuggets team.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time out West locally on KCAL. Also, nationally as the 2nd game of the TNT double header. In other words, if you’re not in the LA area, you’ll be lucky to catch the tip off as the first game inevitably goes long.