There’s two ways to look at the Lakers series vs. the Nuggets. The first is, with a 2-0 lead — one a blowout win and the other a buzzer beating win to fend off a comeback from another double digit lead — the Lakers are firmly in control and are clearly the better team. The second is that the Nuggets have found some things that work vs. the Lakers and while they didn’t win game 2, they should have and will be much better prepared to win game 3 and be more competitive as the series advances.
I could understand arguing either one of those sides and while I’m more inclined to go with option number one, I won’t dare claim option two as invalid. In fact, the Lakers need to act, prepare, and play as if option two is actually what’s goin on in order to maintain their edge heading into tonight’s contest.
From a strategic standpoint, the Lakers need to understand that Denver’s run was not just about the Lakers taking their foot off the gas as they built up a big lead. While that was surely a part of it, the Nuggets actually did make adjustments. They started to crowd the paint in the halfcourt by zoning up on the strong side and taking away driving lanes by showing the help defender early in possessions. This led to turnovers and too many jumpshots by the Lakers — jumpers that they mostly missed (with Anthony Davis being the main exception).
The Lakers will need to counter the Nuggets defensive approach and can do so a couple of different ways. The first is to send cutters through the lane to occupy some of those help defenders and engage them in ways that distract their attention from whoever has the ball. One thing I’d like to see on these cuts, too, is for the cutter to linger and settle into some soft spots of the defense rather than just clearing the area entirely too quickly. Make themselves available for a pass for a beat longer, to give the guy with the ball (mainly Bron, but sometimes AD too) an outlet for when they do decide to either drive or make the pass.
The second thing the Lakers can do as a counter is to still drive the ball, but kick out earlier to spot up options along the arc. In the 4th quarter, Bron did drive, but he too often got deeper than he should have and got himself in trouble in the process. Make that pass earlier and avoid playing too much in a crowd where turnovers are more prevalent.
After the kickout pass the work is not done, though. The Lakers need to incoporporate more flare screens and cuts off the ball once the kickout occurs to again make the Nuggets defense react and move, opening up more space for the shooters in the process. And then the recipient of the kickout pass needs to read things and make the right play. Maybe that means shoot, but it could just as easily mean drive and kick again or swing the ball over one more pass to create an even more open shot. If Denver is going to cram the paint, make them pay by hunting the most open shot and preying on that aggressive rim protection.
Outside of the halfcout, the Lakers need to continue to push the tempo and try to get shots earlier in the shot clock. Pure transition plays are always the best option here, but if those aren’t there, getting into sets earlier and playing with pace to get the Nuggets on their heels is still better than winding the clock into single digits before taking a shot. The Lakers are the quicker team, the more athletic team. That is manifested most earlier in the clock and they need to keep up the mental and physical energy in order to keep exploiting that.
Defensively, the Lakers need to be sharper — particularly on screen actions and what the Nuggets do flowing out of them. I still believe the Lakers are switching too much, but the Nuggets bigs are setting good picks and their ballhandlers are doing a good job of stringing out their dribble in order to force LA into those. So, while my preference is to avoid switching entirely, there’s going to be possessions where there’s no other option. When that’s the case, the Lakers need to be more disciplined in their help and in how/when they double. Too often in the 2nd half the Lakers over-helped or made tactical and mental mistakes by doubling at all.
The Lakers need to understand they cannot help off Murray to double…ever. And when they help off the other Nuggets, they need to be prepared for the cut to the front of the rim — particularly with Craig and MPJ. Denver has spot up options lurking, for sure, but the Lakers are atheltic enough to recover out to the perimeter to contest those shots. Force Denver to make multiple passes around the horn and then get them off the arc with sharp rotations — just like the Rockets series.
Remember, Murray and Jokic are the playmakers. Everyone else should be forced to make a play off the bounce for a teammate. That means, rotate out to run them off the line, rotate to help behind that closeout, then rotate again out of the initial help to recover back to a matchup. If you can force the Nuggets offense to reset, you’ve done your job, but then you need to lock back in and prepare to do the same thing over again because Denver will play late into the clock in the hopes that you make a mistake. If you don’t make one, you’ll force misses and that’s when transition chances can develop for your offense.
Lastly, the Lakers have tried to bully the Nuggets phyiscally and, truthfully, verbally/mentally this series. That approach was much more effective in game 1 than game 2. Don’t get me wrong, I want the Lakers playing with an edge and leveraging their physical advantages. But they need to avoid fouls and they cannot get too caught up in talking about what they’re doing instead of continuing to actually do it. It’s a fine line, for sure, but the refs stepped in an attempt to take back control of game 2 and it led to technicals and a tighter whistle that, honestly, didn’t favor the Lakers.
So, keep playing with force, but play smart and play with discipline for a full game. If they do that, I like their chances. Denver, though, isn’t going to lie down. Especially not down 0-2 and knowing that a loss this game puts them in the type of hole no one climbs out of. So, the Lakers will need to play the full 48 this one to make sure they can hold the Nuggets down.
Where you can watch: 6:00pm start time on TNT.