Denver Nuggets/Los Angeles Lakers – Initial Thoughts

So far in the 2009 NBA Playoffs the Nuggets have only had to deal with players like Tyson Chandler, Hilton Armstrong, Erick Damiper, Ryan Hollins and Brandon Bass. 

Not an overly impressive group, eh?

Next up is Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

If that did not get your attention, I do not know what will.  I guarantee those two have the attention of the Nuggets’ scouts, coaches and players.  The interior beef that the Los Angeles Lakers bring to the table is quite imposing, especially compared to the parade of overmatched stiffs the Nuggets have battled with in the paint over the first two rounds.  Dirk Nowitzki proved to be too much for the Nuggets bigs to handle on their own, but on his own he falls short of the difficulty the Nuggets could, and probably will, have with Gasol and Bynum.

Watching bits and pieces of the Houston Rockets/L.A. Lakers conference semifinal series the one thing that I kept clinging to was Bynum appeared to be either rusty or disinterested.  Bynum’s performance in game seven today was disconcerting because he was clearly not rusty or disinterested.  If he plays that way against Denver, the Nuggets will be in trouble. 

You can talk about Kobe Bryant all you want, the Nuggets biggest concern should be how they can handle Bynum and Gasol.  With the starters on the floor Kenyon Martin is going to have to guard one of them and he has a serious length disadvantage against both.  Most likely Kenyon will be guarding Gasol and for all his defensive desire and talents he is in a big hole trying to cover Gasol.  Pau can shoot his 15-18 foot set shot over Kenyon at will and when he goes into the post his jump hook will be impossible for Kenyon to stop. 

Nene is relatively better equipped to cover Bynum than Kenyon is for guarding Gasol, but Bynum still has a significant length and weight advantage over Nene.   On the other hand, Nene has done a decent job against Gasol in the past so will Denver choose to stick Kenyon on Bynum and double the heck out of him should he get the ball in the post thus creating one major mismatch instead of two less than desirable matchups? 

When Chris Andersen comes off the bench things do not get much better.  Andersen is physically a better matchup on Gasol than Kenyon, but his desire to block shots plays right into one of Gasol’s greatest strengths, and that is offensive rebounding.  When Andersen leaves Pau to go for a block he better get it or else Pau is converting the miss.

One more thing to worry about is the Lakers’ ability and desire to push the pace.  Players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Kobe, Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza will all look to run every chance they get.  That is not all as Gasol runs the floor very well, plus he cherry picks a lot, and Bynum does pretty well himself at least when it comes to earning good post position during the early offense.  That all spells trouble and you can count on the Lakers taking advantage of the Nuggets’ sloppy transition defense much better than the Hornets or Mavericks did.

Well, that was the bad news.  We got it out of our system.  Things are not all bad for Denver. 

The best news of all is that we will not have to watch players like Kenyon Martin and Eduardo Najera attempt to cover Kobe Bryant on the perimeter and consequently Allen Iverson will not be attempting to cover Vladimir Radmanovic on the block.  The reason is the acquisition of Dahntay Jones.

In the first series against the Hornets, Dahntay was the key defender thanks to his ability to frustrate Chris Paul.  As I projected Dahntay played a much smaller role in the second round against the Mavericks because Anthony Carter was much better suited for chasing Jason Terry through screens.  Even though Anthony Carter has played plenty of minutes on Kobe in the past, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize Jones will once again be called on to play defensive stopper.

By the way, while we are somewhat on the subject, the fact George Karl decided to have the Nuggets’ power forwards guard Kobe last season in the playoffs showed how badly overmatched he felt the Nuggets were.  If he though Denver was even close to being the Lakers’ equal on the court he would not have dreamed up such a cockamamie strategy.  This season I think you can be sure he feels much better about this squad’s chances playing straight up.

OK, I was able to get that out of my system. 

Kobe is going to get his points, but like we saw with Chris Paul and Dirk Nowitzki, as long as Denver can make him earn them I think the Nuggets will be happy.  They need to be mentally prepared for the fact that no matter how good of defense they play against Kobe, he is going to go off in a couple of games.  They cannot let discouragement set in because of it. 

The Lakers do not run a lot of pick and roll, but they will run it.  In game 80 of the regular season Denver, especially Nene, did a very good job of hedging on the pick and roll and keeping Kobe out of the lane.  If Denver does not prove to Phil Jackson that they can slow it down, the Lakers will exploit it.

While Bynum is a little too much for the Nuggets to handle defensively, when the Nuggets have the ball, Nene is too quick for Bynum.  Nene can get past Bynum with his spin move or by facing up and driving at him.  If Nene can go at Bynum early and get him in foul trouble it will be a big bonus for the Nuggets.  Nene has shown a propensity to shy away from taking the ball at bigger defenders like Bynum.  He almost acts like someone is holding his family hostage and they have told Nene that if he ever gets a shot blocked his family will pay the price.  He must go at Bynum and Gasol when he has the ball at the rim.

The Lakers’ other frontline player of consequence is Lamar Odom.  Kenyon is definitely highly capable of guarding Odom, but with Odom coming off the bench, Kenyon and Odom will not be on the floor much against each other unless Bynum or Gasol get in foul trouble.  It will be interesting to see if Karl tries to work the matchups so that Birdman is on the floor with Gasol as much as possible while Kenyon will play when Odom is in the game.

Another advantage for the Nuggets is Los Angeles does not have anyone who can cover J.R. Smith.  Even Kobe will be hard pressed to contain Smith’s ability to penetrate.  Sasha Vujacic will be a pest, and it will be important for J.R. to not get baited into giving him a cheap shot, even though we all know Vujacic deserves it.  Sasha will get up in J.R.’s personal space, but Smith is too quick for him and should be able to blow by him at will.  Smith was one of two Nuggets to have a nice series last season and there is no reason not to expect him to do it again.

Unlike J.R., Carmelo has not done very well against the Lakers and over the next few days you will hear a lot of talk about how the Lakers do a great job of shutting Carmleo down.  They certainly have had his number in the past and they completely flustered him in the playoffs last season.  This season Carmelo only averaged 14.5 points per game on only 33% shooting.  I just finished watching the final matchup of the season between the Nuggets and Lakers, the previously mentioned game 80 in L.A. which the Lakers won 116-102, and Carmelo played very well on offense scoring 23 points on 8-16 shooting.

We will get more into this in the next couple of days, but Denver seemed to find a couple of cracks in the Lakers crowd and force into help scheme they have utilized on Melo the past couple of years. 

The other thing in Denver’s favor is Carmelo is having his best postseason ever and he also has a history of figuring defenses out.  After struggling against Trenton Hassell and the Timberwolves his rookie season, including a dreadful 1-16 in the decisive game four, a two point loss in Denver that all but ended the series, Melo went on to absolutely dominate Hassell from the next season on.  In his second season it was the Spurs and Bruce Bowen who forced Melo into a poor statistical series, but when Melo was covered by Bowen after that he absolutely owned him.  Bowen did not stand a chance against Melo one on one and when the two teams met in the postseason in 2007 Carmelo had his only good series until this playoff campaign.

The point is Melo is too talented to be completely bottled up by any scheme indefinitely.  If the progress in game 80 was any indication of his growth against the Lakers’ defense, the numbers 14.5 and 33% will be completely meaningless over the next few days.

Looking at how these two teams have fared in the 2009 playoffs the one major difference between the Nuggets and Lakers is Denver is yet to mail a game in.  They have been wonderfully consistent while L.A. has not shown a great deal of mental focus from game to game.  Los Angeles let the first game at home against Houston slip away and after taking a 2-1 lead and seeing Yao Ming go down in game three L.A. lost two more games and neither one was very close.  The Rockets played hard, but they had no business taking a team as talented as the Lakers to seven games with Yao in street clothes.  There is always the chance the Lakers take Denver for granted enough to give away one of the first two games and the way Denver is playing that may be all they need to win this series.

Sorry, one more bit of bad news to keep in mind.  Los Angeles won 65 games this season, 11 more than the Nuggets.  Regular season records do not mean squat in the playoffs, other than the fact the lakers’ gaudy win total earned them home court advantage against Denver, but L.A. was clearly better than Denver for 82 games and that is not to be overlooked.  The Lakers have been the favorites to win the Western Conference all season and are on a mission to avenge their loss in the 2008 NBA Finals. 

Denver is playing very well right now, but they have had very little success against the Lakers.  In fact, it would have been difficult to have less success as Denver has lost ten out of their previous 11 matchups against L.A. over the past two seasons.  Even with Billups on board Denver has lost two games in L.A. that were not particularly close, although the one win in those previous 11 games came in Denver with Chauncey onboard. 

This is going to be an uphill battle and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned, but not all uphill battles are lost.

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  • magster

    I wonder if the Nuggets might want to try baiting the Lakers into complacency by talking about how great and unbeatable the Lakers are. It seemed like the Lakers never played very well against Houston until they were in danger of actually losing the series.

  • Stumbleweed

    We CANNOT allow Kobe to roam on defense, which is exactly what he will do if George sticks Dahntay on him in a futile attempts to stop Kobe. Nobody on this team will stop Kobe (he stops himself with terrible shot selection), and the main concern should be making sure he’s having to work on defense so he’ll not be spry enough to venture into the paint (which he’s doing less and less often). We need him chasing JR around screens or covering Billups instead of letting Dahntay shoot uncontested jumpers while he doubles or roams for steals/passing lanes.

    If Dahntay gets more than 15 minutes per game, I’m going to be very disappointed, especially with all the improvement JR has shown on the defensive end. And remember that he did a GREAT job on Kobe in that lone win — he also played 32 minutes, which is exactly where he should be in the playoffs against this team. We need JR on the floor for spacing — the Lakers defense is too solid for us to be playing 4 on 5 on the offensive end.

    I’m most worried about Gasol and Odom, actually… not Bynum. Odom is a great rebounder and we don’t have anyone to match up on him because he generally comes in when K-Mart is going out (late 1st, early 2nd) — Balkman would be the ideal matchup, but we all know he won’t see meaningful minutes. And please god, don’t let Kleiza get minutes guarding Odom… We need to limit the Gasol/Odom tandem to under 15 rebounds per game and we’ll be alright — they cannot have those games where they both get double-doubles or we’re certifiably toast.

  • BRUZER

    I’m over from the Lakers LA Times blog. I really appreciate the depth and scope of your analysis. Too many of these are just homer sites, and I guess that’s cool if that’s what you like to read. Much like the blog I’m used to, it seems like you tell it the way you see it, and real fans of the game appreciate that.

    I think the Nuggs are by far the deepest and most complete team the Lakers have (and will if they’re lucky enough to advance from here) faced. They play great team basketball, sharing the ball well, have many offensive weapons, and play tough D! The Billups trade was one of the sharpest deals I’ve seen in a while (maybe since the Gasol deal) and has really solidified the team as a real contender. My gut feel is that the next NBA champ will come out of this series.

    See. Not all people from SoCal are arrogant. Good luck in the series and look forward to the analysis.

  • runningdonut

    Nice Jeremy. It’s crazy what people are saying about this series – there was an SI article that basically described how the Lakers have now become the emotionally fragile headcases. I don’t really buy into any of that, because watching those regular season games versus LA there were some major issues.

    We can’t continue to get dominated on the boards. It requires us to play a near perfect offensive game to survive, and if this becomes an up and down scoring affair like last year, that’s going to favor the Lakers. Rebounding and transition defense will be the key to this series. As well as the Nuggets have played so far I think they need improvement in those areas.

    Melo still needs to break out of his funk versus this Laker group. They have played him tougher than maybe any other team recently. I’m fine with seeing the Melo vs New Orleans rather than the Melo vs Dallas. Whatever happens, he needs to keep his composure because LA will play far more tough and physical than any of the teams we have faced so far.