In Roundball Mining Company’s latest edition of our 5-on-5 series we discuss what’s on everyone’s mind: Lakers vs. Nuggets. In addition to our normal trio of contributors (Jeremy, Charlie and I), we’ve asked Brain Kamenetzky of ESPN’s Land O’Lakers blog and Roundball reader Logan Wright to chip in with their take on the series as well.
1. Who is the player nobody is talking about could end up changing the outcome of the series?
Kalen: I’ll go with Koufos. People outside of Nuggets Nation don’t realize how big of a role he’s played over the second half of the season. He’s the Nuggets starting center and has turned out to be a pretty reliable one at that. Of all the Nuggets 7-footers he’s probably the best in terms of one-on-one defense and brings a level of toughness the Nuggets sorely lack as a team. Both of these factors could end up keeping Gasol in check for small stretches of the game.
Jeremy: Over at Land O’Lakers I answered a similar question with JaVale McGee. I guess that means I have talked about him and he is disqualified from this discussion; therefore, my answer is Al Harrington. Harrington is the one big man Karl trusts implicitly and he is unafraid of taking big shots down the stretch, plus he did a solid job of defending Gasol on the block in the most recent meeting.
Charlie: Andre Miller. Nuggets fans know all too well how volatile he can be but Miller has the most playoff experience of any Denver Nugget and matches up well with the Lakers point-guard duo of Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake. Miller’s effectiveness will likely be the determining factor in whether Denver’s depth is able to counteract the Lakers size and force them out of their comfort zone.
Brian: The Lakers won’t go particularly deep into the roster, but in terms of off-board selections, look at Devin Ebanks and Jordan Hill. Ebanks will replace Metta World Peace in the starting lineup. He may not have a play called for him all series, but will have two major assignments: 1) Stick to Danilo Gallinari as best as he can, and 2) Crash the offensive glass. Gallo struggled mightily against World Peace in the regular season, and Denver’s offense suffered for it. If Ebanks can continue the trend, L.A. is in better shape. Hill will be the primary big off the bench, and will be asked to patrol the paint, grab rebounds, and most importantly, aggressively attack pick and rolls on the perimeter.
Logan: It’s a toss-up between Corey Brewer and Timofey Mozgov, but I’m going to have to go with Brewer. It’s playoff time and people forget that last year he practically won a game for Dallas against the Lakers. We got a taste of his playoff intensity on Russell Westbrook which was flat out incredible and we can expect more of the same against Kobe during end-of-game situations.
2. Between Mike Brown and George Karl, who will do the better coaching job?
Kalen: Recent history says Mike Brown and it’s simply too hard to discount that fact. Both coaches have made it to the Finals once but have also had their fare share of struggles in the playoffs. The thing is, Karl’s Nuggets teams have been obliterated on a consistent basis, even admitting to having quit at times. If there’s one thing we’ve learned during Karl’s tenure in Denver it’s that the playoffs aren’t where his best coaching occurs. For this reason I have to chose Brown, but I still expect Karl to do a better job than he usually does this time of year.
Jeremy: That is a difficult question to answer. All Brown has to do is play Kobe, Bynum and Gasol 40 minutes a game and shuffle in a few players around the periphery. I do not think George Karl can tell you what five Nuggets players will be on the court to close out the game. Karl will have to make adjustments from quarter to quarter and game to game, but I think he can do it.
Charlie: It’s a toss-up, but I’ll reluctantly say Mike Brown with the caveat that he’s got the easier job. George Karl has seen his roster turned upside down twice in the past year while Mike Brown inherited a recent championship core built around arguably the best player of this generation. Brown is also under a lot more pressure to make a deep playoff run whereas the Nuggets are a young team heading into the postseason with a ton of unknowns. There is just a lot more that could potentially go wrong with Karl’s team.
Brian: I consider Karl the better coach, though I think he has the harder job. With the Lakers, there aren’t a whole lot of choices to be made regarding the rotation or allocation of minutes. Things are relatively straightforward. He’ll have decisions to make, but not quite as many as other coaches around the league. When you have more buttons available to push, it’s easier to make the great move, but also easier to make mistakes. Still, I’ll go with Karl, but don’t think either will make any fatal errors that would override what the talent on the floor does.
Logan: George Karl has and always will be one of the most underrated coaches of all time. People have been calling for his head all year, and his small-trust lineups at the end of games make us cringe. His offensive philosophy however is efficient and under-appreciated. Those small-trust lineups shouldn’t be a problem with the Lakers as it will force Karl to match their size and save the Nuggets from having to watch Kenneth Faried or Al Harrington give up offensive rebounds at the center position. This will have Karl receiving a better grade at the end of the series.
3. Which team’s strength will exploit its opponent more, the Lakers size or the Nuggets depth?
Kalen: I have to go with the Lakers size. The Nuggets bench is going to give the Lakers major problems, especially without World Peace, but the Nuggets don’t have anybody who can match up well with Bynum or Gasol defensively. There will be stretches where the Nuggets temporarily stop the bleeding but Lakers front-court advantage seems to be an internal wound that will inevitably cause extreme damage for the Nuggets throughout the series.
Jeremy: The Lakers size. Denver’s depth will not hurt the Lakers because of the off days between games. I believe the Nuggets depth actually makes George Karl’s job much more difficult.
Charlie: The Nuggets depth. Without Metta World Peace the Lakers are even more reliant on their “Big Three” to deliver. The margin of error is small enough that L.A. really can’t afford another injury or even a sub-par series from Bynum or Gasol. The Lakers size is certainly imposing but the Nuggets can counter with McGee, Faried, Koufos and Mozgov, whereas L.A. lacks a true answer to the sheer depth of Denver.
Brian: If the Lakers want to win, it had better be the former, and since I’m picking L.A., that’s where I’ll go. Certainly the big numbers posted by Bynum and Gasol in four regular season games back up the choice.
Logan: The Nuggets second unit with Andre Miller’s passing skills, Al Harrington’s ability to space the floor and Corey Brewer’s energy is huge. But the overall size of the Lakers starting unit will lead to offensive rebounds, second-chance points and Bynum’s dominance in the post. This will give the Lakers a size advantage that the Nuggets simply can’t top.
4. Can the Nuggets win the series by outrunning the Lakers?
Kalen: Everyone knows that once the playoffs arrive the pace slows down, but I truly believe that if the Nuggets are to win this series they must push the pace as much as possible. To me, that’s the only way they can win the series. The Nuggets are not a good half-court basketball team and will not win if they’re constantly forced to play this way. The Nuggets have the depth and altitude to push the pace, and cannot afford to abandon its identity this late in the game.
Jeremy: No. They will certainly outrun L.A., but that will not be enough. However, if Denver does not get out and score in transition, they have no chance. The Nuggets will have to execute down the stretch when the game has slowed down in order to pull out any victories. Running is a prerequisite to be in a position to win.
Charlie: No. Slowing the Nuggets down will be the primary focus of the Lakers preparation for this series and they have the personnel to do it. The Lakers style is much more suited to playoff basketball where the game slows down and winning is determined by defense and late-game execution. For the Nuggets to compete in this series, they’ll have to grow up and beat L.A. at their own game.
Brian: They’re going to try, I would think. Based on the Synergy numbers the series matches up the 3rd best team in transition offense against the 25th ranked transition defense. Moreover, the Nuggets had more transition possessions than any team in the league. That’s how they roll and it’s probably their single greatest advantage over the Lakers. Not only can their running game be a source of easy points, but it can tempt the Lakers into a much faster paced game than they should play. The Lakers will try to counter by keeping floor balance, and forcing Denver to stay home on the defensive glass. I don’t think Denver can run their way into an upset, but I do think they’ll make it very, very interesting.
Logan: Well, they’re going to have to since that’s the Nuggets philosophy: run, run, run. The Lakers size and half-court defense is just too tough for the Nuggets to overcome, however the Nuggets can beat them by out-running them. There will be points during the game where it will slow down but the Nuggets have shown improvement in the half-court game as the season has gone on.
5. Who will end up winning the series and in how many games?
Kalen: I’ll take the Lakers in seven. My heart desperately wants to say the Nuggets but after watching them fail so many times before I’m simply too jaded to fully invest my soul in some sort of miracle upset. What I do believe however, is that the Nuggets, for the first time since 2009, will actually play extremely competitive basketball in the postseason. And by Nuggets standards, it (sadly) doesn’t get much better than that.
Jeremy: Lakers in six. I fully expect all of these games to be close. The Nuggets have defended the Lakers as well as they have defended any of the playoff teams in the West; however, the Lakers have done just as good of a job defending them. Denver has posted an offensive efficiency of 98.2 against L.A. this season while the Lakers have an offensive efficiency of only 97.7. I believe the Lakers will win in six, but they will be six close, tight games.
Charlie: With the Nuggets playing their best ball all season and the starters really beginning to click, I’m tempted to say this series is a total toss up. It should be very competitive and a lot closer than many think, but Denver has more potential pitfalls to overcome than L.A. For that reason, I give the slight edge to the Lakers, who are a more proven playoff team. Lakers in six, but I’m genuinely conflicted about it.
Brian: I’ve gone back and forth all day between Lakers in six and Lakers in seven. But since I made “Lakers in six” my official prediction over at ESPNLA.com, I’ll have to stick with it here. Can I say L.A. in six-and-a-half?
Logan: The fan in me hurts so bad to say this, but another first-round loss to crush our hearts will happen yet again. Every game in the series is going to be close and the Nuggets will have leads well into the fourth quarter, but the Lakers will end up prevailing due to their experience and grit. Lakers in six.