There was nothing more surprising in Game 4 than how easily the Lakers won. Not easy as in, playing the Charlotte Bobcats easy… but rather, easy as in… they played slow, uninspired basketball for about 46 minutes and still ended up winning without doing anything special. Some may say the Nuggets handed the victory to the Lakers, but I see it differently. Usually when a team hands over the game to its opponent, there is visible frustration or a dazed glare in the player’s eyes as if they’re in disbelief of what’s happening. On Sunday, the Nuggets didn’t show any of these signs. It was as if they didn’t even realize what was actually going on until the game had finally concluded — something eerily similar to what we’ve seen all season long.
Game 4, more than anything, was bad habits catching up to the Nuggets. All those absolutely abysmal performances we saw from them during the middle stretch of the season when it looked as if they were a lottery team rather than a playoff team — those habits don’t just disappear never to be seen again. There’s a given amount of time that must pass before these types of things steadily dissolve from the your brain. Had the Nuggets been a team like the Bulls, Spurs or Grizzlies who failed to let injuries to it’s best players hold them back, those bad habits never would have appeared in the first place; and on Sunday, they likely would have been relentless in their attempt to pound the Lakers into submission. Instead, they seemed satisfied just to be there. The importance of that game never seemed to permeate their minds. Now the Nuggets face the near-impossible task of going to Los Angeles and winning with their backs against the ropes while Kobe Bryant stands glaring at them from the other side of the court.
But, nothing is written quite yet. The Nuggets still have a chance to make some noise before the inevitable rears its ugly head. Here are a few keys that should help the Nuggets extend this series and bring them back to Denver for a possible Game 6:
Let Kobe do Kobe. The Nuggets have done an excellent job of defending Kobe Bryant during the series, evident by his .426 shooting percentage throughout. Afflalo has taken a hit offensively due to his rigorous job of containing Bryant, but the that’s to be expected. If Karl can keep rotating Afflalo, Brewer and Gallinari on the “Black Mamba,” that will keep Kobe in check, forcing up countless ill-advised shots along the way.
Keep Miller posted up. As one of the better diminutive post players in the game, Andre Miller has done a great job of backing down Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions in the post. Mike Brown has shown an affinity to playing Blake alongside Sessions, which is beneficial for Karl and his similar liking to the two-point guard lineup. At this point the Nuggets will take baskets any way they can get them, and it just so happens that Miller is the likeliest candidate to get these due to his individual matchups.
Gallinari must drive to the lane. While his shot was indeed falling in Game 4, it’s not going to stay that way for an extended period of time. Gallinari’s strength lies in his ability to get into the lane and draw contact. Drawing contact means the Lakers big men get in foul trouble and when the Lakers big men get in foul trouble, the Nuggets maintain a “sizable” advantage over their counterpart. Even if he’s not getting the calls it’s absolutely paramount that Gallinari is relentless in his attempt to get to the free throw line if Denver wants to extend this series.
Play McGee as much as humanly possible. The numbers are in and what we’re seeing is that when McGee is in the game, Andrew Bynum is not the same dominant player he was in Game 1. While his points continue to rack up, his rebounding goes in the opposite direction. McGee’s presence in the paint alone is a total game changer. Going back to Los Angeles should benefit him in terms of his asthma, so seeing any less than 30 minutes of action will be unacceptable.
Stay away from small ball. As it is, nobody sees small ball as an asset… except George Karl. But against the Lakers, electing not to utilize your 7-footers is particularly frustrating. There’s just no room, no reason, no practical justification for having Al Harrington on Pau Gasol or Kenneth Faried on Andre Bynum. The Lakers always have a 7-footer on the floor, therefore the Nuggets should to. Karl cannot be afraid to tap into his bench and use three 7-footers even if it means straying away from his idiosyncrasies. If it’s for short stretches of only a few minutes, that’s still one more minute that the Lakers don’t have the huge size advantage they have throughout the series.
Run like hell. The Nuggets have nothing to lose in Game 5. They must leave every ounce of their heart out on the floor. This means running like their lives depend on it. Of course, to run you must first get stops, so defense will be an essential part of this equation. If the Nuggets can establish a frantic pace, the Lakers won’t feel comfortable and likely wont’ be able to keep up either. Falling into the trap of playing a half-court game will be the first step towards going home early.
Rebound the ball if you want to live. Besides playing lock-down defense, I don’t think there’s anything more important in Game 5 than rebounding the ball. The Lakers are one team you absolutely cannot afford to give extra possessions to. Every time Kobe misses a difficult shot and you don’t get the rebound, you erase any work you put into defending him — or anybody else for that matter — in the first place. Bynum and Gasol thrive off rebounding. It gets the crowd into the game, boosts their confidence and in the end gives them one more opportunity than the Nuggets to score a basket. Faried and McGee weren’t brought to Denver to score. They’re both fully capable of dominating the Lakers on the glass, they just have to go out and do it. Get aggressive, box out and frustrate Gasol and Bynum in the process. Perhaps easier said than done, but who said this was going to be easy in the first place?