I have been chided for being negative and pessimistic. To me the negative is simply providing objective analysis. As far as pessimistic, well, you’ve got me there. I have been a fan of the Nuggets for roughly two and a half decades. My personal conclusion is that Nuggets fan and optimist are mutually exclusive.
However, heading into game six I have objectively found several reasons why Nuggets fans can feel
optimistic encouraged about Denver’s chances to force a game seven.
The Nuggets are scoring in the paint. The Lakers sole focus on defense is to try to clog the lane and prevent Denver from scoring easy baskets. In game one, they were relatively successful, mostly thanks to 15 blocked shots. Even so, half of Denver’s 88 points came in the paint. While most teams would live to say they scored half their points in the paint, 50% does not cut it for Denver.
The good news is they have surpassed that mark in each of the next four games. Over the course of the season Denver has seen 51.6% of their points produced in the paint. In game two, they scored 60% of their points in the paint. In their game three win it actually dropped to 52.5% although that was still a higher ratio than their season average. Game four saw 59.1% of their points scored in the lane and in their game five victory the figure was 56.9%.
Despite the Lakers’ best efforts, Denver is getting easy buckets.
Sticking with offense we will remain objective and consider one of my favorite laws of nature, the law of averages. The Nuggets are a bad three point shooting team, but not as horrible as they have shown so far in the playoffs. Denver has made only 20 three pointers in the five games and are converting on only 23.0% of their attempts from downtown. The law of averages dictates that has to change. The Nuggets are averaging 17.4 three point attempts per game. If we assume they keep that pace they would have to make 14 of those 17 in order to push their success rate back up to their regular season percentage of 33.2%. Of course, it will most likely take time for their percentage to return to that which is expected. So while making 14 threes is probably out of the question, consider Denver’s previous low for made threes over a five game stretch this season is 22 in games five through nine. Over the next three games the Nuggets cashed in on 30 made three pointers including their season best 11-18 performance against the Nets.
True the Lakers are much better than the Nets, but with their defensive focus on clogging the lane, Denver has had plenty of open looks from downtown and a breakout game or two or three is on the horizon.
Shifting to personnel, the Lakers are allowing Denver to play Lawson and Miller together, which plays right into George Karl’s hands. Nuggets fans have groused all season long about the small lineups that Karl prefers. However, there is no doubt that Lawson and Miller have been probably the two most effective Nuggets in the series. Fans were horrified at the prospect of Miller guarding Kobe Bryant, but thanks to the lineups that Mike Brown has been using, that fear has not come to fruition. Due to the fact that Danilo Gallinari has proven that he can at least bother Kobe, Miller can be hidden on Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks or Matt Barnes.
What was supposed to be a major issue for Denver has turned into an even bigger strength. According to the NBA Stats Tool, Ty Lawson and Andre Miller are Denver’s best duo having outscored the Lakers by 37 points when they are on the court together. When adjusted to plus/minus per 48 minutes, they are fourth best of all Nugget duos who have been on the court together for more than two minutes with a plus 22.4. Say what you want about the two point guard lineup, but it is causing the Lakers major headaches.
Sticking with lineups, my biggest concern heading into the series was how Kenneth Faried would survive against Pau Gasol, despite his importance to Denver since being inserted into the rotation I even considered that Denver might be better off bringing Faried off the bench. Boy was I wrong and glad about it. Faried has played Gasol to a virtual standstill. Gasol has a playoff PER of 19.12, fueled by an insanely high assist rate for a PF/C. Faried is right there with him posting a very solid 18.17 PER while posting better numbers in the categories such as shooting percentages and rebound rates that you look for out of your bigs.
Gasol has begun to take Faried on the block more frequently over the previous couple of games, but Faried has held his ground and Gasol has settled for soft turnaround jumpers instead of trying to aggressively attack the basket where his length is a true advantage over the Manimal. Faried has been so good that the biggest problem with Denver’s game five win was Karl’s decision to sit Faried in place of Harrington. Faried inexplicably did not play for the final 15 minutes.
Hopefully, that will not become a trend as Faried has proven he can hang with the big boys under the bright lights.
One more lineup observation is that while the two point guard lineup is as prevalent as ever, Karl has actually beginning to shun small ball lineups and the reason is JaVale McGee has earned Karl’s trust. In game five Denver played without a center on the floor for a mere 2:10. Who knows what Karl will do in a do or die game six, especially if McGee struggles in his first couple of stints on the court. Still the evidence points to Karl’s believe that Denver must have a center on the floor at all times against the Lakers.
Finally a couple of Laker observations. First, Kobe has continued his Pepsi Center struggles in the playoffs. His EFG% is 10.6% lower in Denver than in L.A. and his TS% is even worse as Kobe has seen a 14.2% differential in his True Shooting Percentage in Denver versus L.A. Fortunately, his usage rate is basically unchanged despite his atrocious efficiency in the Mile High City.
Finally, we get to the most criticized player in the series, Andrew Bynum. Bynum’s body language has grown considerably worse throughout the series. In game one, he only attempted ten shots, but received so many accolades for his triple double that a slight reduction in shots was of no concern to him. In game two his shots spiked up to 20 as he dominated the Nuggets for 27 points. Things have changed since game two as Denver has committed to always having a big body on him as well as swarming him as soon as he touches the ball on the block. His shot attempts have dropped to 11 in game three, 12 in game four and a miniscule 8 in game five. Bynum was getting visibly upset when his teammates chose not to enter the ball into the post on several occasions in game five and if Denver can continue to frustrate him, he will become less and less dedicated to his duties on defense.
There you have it. Not optimism, just a few reasons to be encouraged through solid analysis backed by both empirical evidence and raw statistics. The Lakers are going to come out in game six with more intensity than Denver has seen from them so far in this series. The Nuggets have done a great job of increasing their own level of intensity following their rude awakening in game one.
I only have one more thing to add…enjoy game six Nuggets fans!