Phew, glad to have that Rockets series over with -- maybe this team has learned a little bit about itself and how it really needs to bring it every night, especially on the defensive end. FWIW, Cleveland sweeps that series and wins Game 4 (no Yao) by 40 on Houston's home floor. You cannot underestimate how good the Lil' Lebron's are playing right now: 8 Playoff wins, all by double digits, and playing ridiculously good team defense. They're clearly the favorite right now, especially after they paste Orlando in the first two games of the Eastern Finals. Mark my words, it's going to happen.
A few key points about the Western Finals before I get to breaking down the matchups:
Key Defensive Matchup: Trevor Ariza vs. Carmelo Anthony:
If the Nuggets are smart (insert Bucks era George Karl joke here) they'll post Anthony on the right block against Ariza A LOT, and force the Lakers to double or allow Ariza to end up in foul trouble while Carmelo gets going by hitting 12 foot fadeaways or getting layups at the rim. Ariza's length can bother Carmelo on the perimeter but Anthony could physically dominate him in the post, as we saw Artest was able to do, when he wanted to, in the Rockets series. This matchup is an area of concern in a halfcourt setting and in key possessions down the stretch. In fact, I think that Odom should probably play Anthony in the fourth quarter with Ariza playing JR Smith or Chauncey Billups (more on this in a minute).
Key Defensive Question: Who guards Chauncey Billups?
If the Nuggets are going to start Dahntay Jones as their "Kobe slower-downer" then Fisher should guard Billups and Kobe matches up against Jones and plays defensive free safety, which is really when he's at his best on the defensive end -- jumping into passing lanes and diving from the perimeter to the post on double teams. The problem comes up when the Nuggets go to their best lineup, which is Billups, Smith, Anthony, Martin, and Nene. If the Lakers go big, then Odom guards Anthony, Kobe guards Smith, and Brown/Fish guards Billups. I don't think the Lakers can go small here unless they play two guards like Fish/Brown/Sasha together with Kobe at the small forward. Kobe's not a good matchup against Anthony, so this wouldn't be a good lineup for the Lakers. Farmar really shouldn't get a lot of minutes in this series unless he's knocking down 70% of his threes.
That's really the concern in this series: If Karl plays that lineup 50% of the time, the Lakers are really going to have matchup problems because they're going to end up with an undersized forward playing Anthony OR a small guard playing Billups, and neither of those are desireable matchups for the Lakers. Don't get me wrong, I think that they match up better with the Nugs' big guards better than they do the Rockets waterbug guards.
Key Offensive Matchups: Gasol/Bynum vs. Martin/Nene
This should concern the hell out of Phil Jackson. Both Martin and Nene are physical low post defenders, similar to, oh, Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett last year for the Celtics. The biggest single reason that the Lakers lost the Finals last year was that Perkins beat the holy crap out of Gasol in the post and Pau disappeared in that series. This could be the same situation, which is why both Pau and Bynum have to play like men in this series. We witnessed what Chuck Hayes did to Gasol just by being physical, and he was giving up 6 inches to him -- Martin and Nene are his size, and so is Birdman (he's taller if you count his ridiculous haircut). If Denver turns the Lakers into a jump-shooting team, the series is over in 5 games -- look at what happened when the Rockets made L.A. a jump shooting team in Games 4 and 6 of the semis, and the Nuggets are heads and shoulders better offensively than that Rockets team. Gasol and Bynum must average a 32-20 between them to create enough offensive balance for the Lakers to thrive.
Key Offensive Question: Which Lamar Odom will we get?
Look, we know Kobe will get 30 at least twice in this series, and we know that Gasol and Bynum are question marks due to the physical nature of the defenders they're going to see. That leaves Odom.
If the Nuggets guard him with Carmelo, the Lakers should run the triangle with Odom on the block and let the offense run though him. Anthony reminds me of Charles Barkley -- he's as tough a matchup as there is offensively, but you can get back a whole lot of the points he scores on the other end by taking advantage of him defensively. Odom should dominate Anthony and force the Nuggets to put Kenyon Martin on him (which I think they will anyway), but that should open up the lane a little more for Kobe to drive and for Gasol/Bynum to get good looks at the basket.
This is my personal opinion, but I think the entire series really hinges on Lamar Odom. If he can be a go to guy offensively, hit 70% of his free throws and 35% of his 3's, then he is a huge matchup problem for the Nuggets because they simply don't have a player that can guard him if Phil plays their best lineup 35% of the time (Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Bryant, Fisher). My biggest fear is that Phil will play Odom at the 4 spot and allow Kenyon Martin to completely dominate him in the series (which he will), rendering the matchup problem useless for the Lakers. I would hope the Zen-Master is smart enough to use the Lakers' post rotation to keep Martin and Nene busy while leaving Anthony, Smith, Billups, Jones, and Kleiza to man the Laker backcourt.
My favorite Laker lineup in this series? Bryant, Ariza/Vujacic, Odom, Gasol, and Bynum. Think about it for a second. Lamar brings the ball up as a Pippen type point forward, Ariza/Vujacic bothers the holy hell out of Chauncey Billups defensively, and the Nuggets have no way to hide both Anthony and Smith on defense. One of those two will have to guard Odom or Bryant, and Martin wouldn't guard Lamar if he's bringing the ball up because it would wear him out. That lineup is matchup hell for the Nuggets. However, according to 82games.com, that lineup hasn't seen the floor all season, so don't expect to see it in this series.
Turnovers and Fast Break Points:
The Nuggets are not good at taking care of the ball - Anthony/Smith/Nene/Billups average around 11 turnovers per 36 minutes as a whole. That's quite a few. This should give the Lakers some opportunities for easy points.
If the Lakers end up in jump shooting mode, this is what will kill them. Games 4 and 6 against the Rockets were marred with turnovers and poor ball movement, and the Nuggets will turn a lot of turnovers into points, much more than the Rockets did.
If the series is called closely, advantage L.A. because the Lakers have a deeper bench and the Nuggets lose the advantage of physical post play disrupting Gasol's aggressiveness. If it becomes a physical series, and it probably will, I think this favors the Nuggets because they have very aggressive and physical offensive players that are all excellent free throw shooters.
Walton/Brown/Vujacic/Farmar > Smith/Kleiza/Anderson/Carter
It just has to be, right? If not, the Lakers will have trouble holding leads and will have to play Kobe, Lamar, and Pau more in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. Not a good idea when you're playing at altitude in Denver.
1. I see Anthony and Billups having very good series' against the Lakers.
2. Kobe should have at least one game of 40+ and possibly even two, and he should get to the line 8+ times a game in this series.
3. Gasol/Odom have to outplay Martin/Nene. They just have to. No excuses.
4. I see the Lakers winning this series in 6, with Denver winning game 3 by about 30 points after the Lakers take the first two games in L.A. and turn in a total stinkbomb by putting it on cruise control.