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I was intending to put together some final thoughts on the series and then post some game one insights in a game thread, but sadly we are running out of time so I am going to have to combine both into one final pre-series post.
In my previous posts I have focused on matchups such as Bynum and Gasol versus Kenyon and Nene and how Carmelo can finally break out against the Lakers, but have not paid much attention to the most important key of all and that is how the Denver Nuggets defend the Lakers.
It all starts with Kobe and filters down from there. No matter who is guarding the Mamba they must make sure he gets nothing easy. On the other hand, if you pay too much attention to him and double and triple team him, you get Pau Gasol roaming the lane scoring on a barrage of dunks and layups.
What is the answer? Denver will trap Kobe off the pick and roll, but when he has the ball look for them to expect Dahntay Jones, J.R. Smith, Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony or whoever is guarding him to play him straight up, keep him out of the lane and force him to shoot jumpers.
The problem with playing him straight up like that is Kobe has an excellent post game and he can take Jones, J.R. and Chauncey down on the block and drain turnaround jumpers over them all night long. If the Nuggets do trap Kobe outside of coming off of a ball screen, look for them to do it when he has the ball in the post.
Denver will need Dahntay Jones to do a very good job on Kobe when Jones is on the floor. If he cannot at least make Kobe work hard for his points, Denver cannot afford to have him in the lineup. I expect Kobe to draw fouls on Jones quickly and do not be surprised to see Dahntay collecting four or five fouls in just ten or 12 minutes.
Even if Jones plays the best defense of his life it is unfair to expect him to put the clamps on Kobe. No one can shut Kobe down and few teams have been successful in even containing him. If Kobe is looking to score, he will get his 30 points and if he is on fire, he will get 40 or more. One thing to keep an eye on is Kobe has only made four of his past 16 threes. Denver will have to hope he remains cold from long distance, but we all know it is only a matter of time before he goes off.
If Kobe is wreaking havoc on Denver and they must adjust their defense to commit more resources to covering him the Nuggets must make sure they rotate perfectly. The Lakers’ shooters will make their open shots. I do not care that Derek Fisher or Jordan Farmar or Sasha Vujacic have been in shooting slumps lately, they will make their shots in the conference finals. If Denver is consistently giving up open looks to those guys the Nuggets will be in trouble. Equally as important as making sound perimeter rotations is ensuring their interior defense remains intact.
Players like Gasol, Bynum and Odom are all great finishers in the paint. If Denver shows cracks in the lane the Lakers are a great passing team and they will feed the ball to one of their big men at the rim. Look no further than Gasol’s 36 point outburst in game one of the Nuggets/Lakers series last season where ten of his 12 made baskets were assisted (he made 14 shots, but only 12 are on record in the play by play at least that I can see).
The other potential issue for Denver defensively is if they have to bring a double team to help Kenyon guard Pau in the post. If you double Pau, it opens up the floor for Kobe and if Kobe drives or is red hot from the perimeter your defense is going to get embarrassed.
Looking at the Lakers’ defense they really struggle to contain penetration. Their guards play hard on defense, but Fisher and Vujacic are just not quick enough to contain athletic guards. Much has been made of how Aaron Brooks shredded the Lakers’ defense in the semifinals although as everyone has pointed out the Nuggets do not have a Brooks type player. Do not let that fool you into thinking that Denver cannot get into the lane against the Lakers.
Chauncey may not have blazing straight line speed, but he is great with the basketball and when he wants to drive, he gets in the lane. You can count on J.R. Smith to find his way into the lane more than a few times and Anthony Carter is also capable of getting into the paint off of ball reversals when there is a gap in the defense.
The Nuggets are not only going to be facing the Lakers, Denver will also have to fight history. To me anything that happened two or five or especially 20 years ago is practically meaningless. The truth is tonight will be the first time these two teams with this mixture of player face each other with both teams fully healthy so who cares who won a series 24 seasons ago?
That being said, a negative history can weigh a franchise down. A team and their fans can get conditioned to expect failure. The Lakers actually have a ten game postseason winning streak against Denver, which is the fourth longest streak of its kind ever behind a 12 game winning streak the 76ers held over the Knicks from 1968-83, a 12 game winning streak the Lakers held against Seattle from 1980-89 and a 12 game streak Boston compiled against Chicago from 1981-87. In addition to the losing streak Denver is 2-14 since joining the NBA in 1976 in game ones on the road. Denver also has to deal with their history in Los Angeles where they have not done well over the previous 12 seasons.
The one thing this Nuggets team has going for them in that area is they are the team that is defying the franchises’ sorry postseason history. They are the ones who are overcoming those past embarrassments. I do not think they will be at all intimidated and I expect them to play well throughout the series.
If you listened to the NBA Today podcast from May 19, you heard me say that my official prediction is the Lakers in seven games. Do not let that disappoint you, I have undersold the Nuggets in each of the first rounds and hopefully I am doing so again. Denver has an excellent shot at winning this series and as long as they can play competent defense and players like Carmelo, Chauncey and J.R. continue to shoot the ball the way they have been there is no reason why Denver cannot represent the west in the NBA Finals.
I doubt that the Nuggets are going to get a lackadaisical effort from the Lakers like the Rockets did. Then again, there is no guarantee that L.A. truly sees the Nuggets as a legitimate competitor and they may certainly overlook Denver as they did Houston.
Enough talk. It all starts tonight. If Denver can steal game one that could be the only spark they need to get over the hump against the Lakers and it would be a great step towards winning this series.
Take this with you: The Lakers are the first team the Nuggets have faced in this postseason that provide multiple difficult matchups. It seems Denver has taken a large step forward since the regular season ended, but we will not know if that is truly the case until tonight.
One more thing. It is not fair that I wrote all of this without mentioning Chris Andersen so I just wanted to say, “Birdzilla!”