If Denver wins two of their final three games they will clinch the second seed in the Western Conference no matter what the Spurs, Rockets or Blazers do. A win tonight in Los Angeles would not only tie the franchise record for wins in a single season it would more importantly set the Nuggets up to clinch the second seed and the division title on Monday at home against the Kings (although we all remember what happened the last time Denver played Sacramento).
A loss in Los Angeles would open the door to a potentially frustrating finish. Of course a winner take all battle in Portland on the last night of the season would be intense, but a win over the Lakers would be sweet. Plus a loss against the Lakers will open the door to a few days of freaking out over how bad it would suck to lose a two and a half game lead with four to play.
Despite a four game winning streak the Lakers are not playing at peak efficiency. They lost back to back games at Charlotte and Atlanta to close out March and have played tight games against the Bucks and Clippers since then. The Lakers should be motivated to play well seeing as how their last game against the Nuggets was an embarrassing loss that saw the Lakers score a paltry 79 points.
The Nuggets may be going after the second seed in the west, but the Lakers are chasing a larger goal too and they have a much more scant margin for error that the Nuggets do. Los Angeles is a game behind the Cavs for the top record in the NBA and home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Lakers area game behind Cleveland, but own the tie breaker having swept the season series against the Cavs.
The other big story heading into this game is the return of Andrew Bynum. Phil Jackson has said that Bynum will probably start immediately upon his return. That could be a good thing for the Nuggets as he will undoubtedly be rusty. However, we all know the saying that size never has a bad day. Whether he is rusty or not he is still a seven foot tall 285 pound force on the court.
From the Nuggets’ standpoint Kenyon Martin is a game time decision with his strained rib cage, but whether or not Kenyon plays is not the Nuggets’ biggest problem. Denver has to hope that Carmelo can shake his seven game long slump against the Lakers. During the four game playoff series against LA last season Carmelo shot 32 of 88 for a disastrous 36.3%. He has somehow managed to top that performance this season shooting 14 for 51 in the three games against the Lakers this season which equates to 27.5%. Overall in his last seven games against the Lakers Melo has only made 46 of his 139 attempts equaling a shooting percentage of 33.1%.
The Lakers do a great job of pressuring Melo and then providing help as a team. It is comical to think of players like Vlad Radmanovic (now with Charlotte) and Luke Walton frustrating Melo, but they have thanks to the team concept the Lakers’ utilize to slow Melo down. Radmanovic and Walton will get right up under Carmelo which takes away his jumper and his jab step and shoot midrange game. When Melo drives, they ride him into a position where they know help is waiting. It is simple, but effective and also somewhat illegal. The Lakers get away with a lot of contact on Melo when he drives and I am sure the Nuggets have sent footage of it to the league. If the refs continue to allow it, Melo will have his work cut out for him. Instead of forcing bad shots Melo needs to use the swarming defense against the Lakers and look to earn easy shots for his teammates.
As we saw in the playoffs last season it does not matter who steps up for Denver, J.R. and Kleiza both had a big series against the Lakers, as long as Melo struggles like that against LA Denver will have a difficult time beating them.
Denver has lost five straight games in Los Angeles against the Lakers, which could be worse, but is not encouraging. They are coming off a poor defensive performance against the Thunder and are playing in the second night of a back to back set for the last time this season. They must dig deep and play a great all around game. Should they lose it will not eliminate them from earning the second seed or winning the division, but it sure opens the door to scenarios we would rather not discuss.
Denver Nuggets Game Notes (if this link is still showing the notes for the Thunder game when you access it, check back later as it will switch to the Lakers game soon)
Take this with you: Carmelo decided to give the Lakers some bulletin board material through Chris Tomasson of InDenverTimes.com.
“When I look at the West, I don’t really see that one dominant team,’’ said Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. “Everybody says the Lakers. Yeah, the Lakers are pretty good. But I don’t really see that one team that you say is going to win the West. I think it’s pretty much even now.’’
Real nice Melo. I will need to talk to Chris and see if he can sit on quotes like that in the future.