Tuesday night ended well for Lakers fans. Wednesday night made it a little bit better. Thursday night? Things should only continue to improve. Why? Because Tuesday night didn't go so well.
Did you follow that?
The Lakers' Game 1 win over the Nuggets on Monday was so gratifying because it was so difficult, and because it showed the team's resolve. The team played poorly for the first 42 minutes, and even in the final six, they were only as good as their best player. To win when so much went wrong showed maturity, mental toughness, resiliency, determination, and the kind of mindset that will be necessary for the Lakers to win a championship.
In focusing now on Game 2, let's take another look at Game 1, where we'll see the positive things that the Lakers need to build on, and the negatives that they need to improve on. The latter is the longer list, so we'll start with the former.
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We've touched on some of the positives that enabled the Lakers to emerge victorious from the Game 1 scrum. Trevor Ariza's defense, Derek Fisher's late shooting, and Kobe Bryant's everything, as well as some stretches of very strong defense and an ability to flip that switch and make the right plays at the end of the game, all led to a gritty win. But though it was an ugly, ugly game, there was more yet to be pleased with.
Positives to Build On
I know we've already talked about him, but this bit by David Friedman bears repeating. On Kobe Bryant:
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the 17th time that Bryant has scored at least 10 points in the fourth quarter of a Lakers playoff win when the Lakers trailed in the fourth quarter, a statistic that is much more meaningful and relevant than the misleading statistic that some people—including ESPN’s Mike Wilbon—mistakenly believe proves that the Lakers would win more frequently if Bryant attempted fewer shots (there is a difference between correlation and causation but I will address that whole issue in a separate article); anyone who thinks that the Lakers would have won this game if Bryant had attempted fewer shots needs to have his head examined.
What else? Rebounding, for one, continues to be a strength for the Lakers against Denver. They were +9 on the boards, and of particular importance, +10 on the offensive glass. As DexterFishmore pointed out, they rebounded an astounding 38% of their own misses. That allowed the Lakers to take 16 more shot attempts than the Nuggets, which offset Denver's five additional possessions at the free throw line and enabled the Lakers to win despite shooting 41.1% from the field, to Denver's 48.6%. L.A. Also grabbed 77% of Denver's misses, only giving up 23% to the Nuggets. (Thanks for the numbers, Dex.)
If you're going to point to just one thing that won the game for the Lakers, it's Kobe. But if you want a second, it was their work on the boards.
Three-point shooting was another area in which the Lakers performed extremely well (little thanks to Machine). They shot only 41% on 2-point shots, but they hit 44% of their threes. In particular, Kobe and Fish led the charge, combining to shoot 5-9 from distance. Luke hit one of two, and LO hit the only one he took. (That's the Lamar Odom I like: take them rarely, hit them often.) While Kobe and rebounding were the stories of the game, some of those threes were serious momentum changers.
Free throw shooting was also a positive. L.A. didn't take as many as Denver, but when they took them, they hit them, at a rate of 83.3%. The same cannot be said for the Nuggets, and the Lakers ability to take what little was handed to them on a silver platter was another thing that kept them in the game.
Jordan Farmar got only nine minutes of burn, but he made the most of them. His 2-5 shooting wasn't anything to write home about, but more important to the game was his overall energy. I'm starting to think of him as the new Ronny Turiaf: instant energy. When the Lakers are lifeless on the court, I'm in favor of putting Farmar out there, along with perhaps a couple other bench mob cohorts, to inject some energy into the game. They did that at the end of the first quarter, and when the starters returned, they picked up where the bench had left off and ran with it.
While we're at it, the entire bench mob was great. They did what we had once grown so accustomed to them doing: whupping the other team's bench. They outscored the Nuggets' bench 27-16. Six Lakers bench players scored at least 3 points; only two Nuggets bench players scored at all. If the bench continues to perform, while the starters return to form, L.A. will be in great shape.
Negatives to Improve On
We've talked enough about what went well in Game 1. We won the game, that's all good and well, but every one of us knows that we're going to need to play better (and by "we," I of course mean "they"). Here are some things the Lakers can improve on for Game 2.
The front line was pretty terrible in Game 1. Numbers schmumbers, suffice it to say the score was, Nuggets front line: a lot, Lakers front line: a little. The defense was pretty bad in the first half, and the offense was non-existent. Andrew Bynum was in early foul trouble and not able to have much impact on the game, and Pau Gasol seemed helpless until the final mintues of the game. It's easy to say, "Gasol needs to get more touches," but it's also important to point out that he needs to do more with his touches when he gets them. If he isn't playing with high energy and doesn't get going early, he quickly stops looking for his shot. Somewhere in the 4th quarter, he hit a classic elbow jumper, and it occurred to me that I couldn't recall him taking that shot all game long. To a certain degree, I don't mind if he misses a couple; he's got to be aggressive, and he can't start looking to pass as soon as he gets the ball.
Derek Fisher was as bad in the first half as he was good in the second. Fortunately, I'm not too worried about him defensively, as he will likely spend a good chunk of time guarding Denver's offensively inept trio of guards (thanks Dex!), especially Dahntay Jones and Anthony Carter. Kobe will continue to defend Billups for large chunks of the game, and he may continue to get minutes defending Melo, as well. I'd like to see him switch over to J.R. Smith for the first few possessions that Smith is in the game, because if Smith gets frustrated, he'll play the kind of game that helps us and hurts the Nuggets. We'll either benefit from his presence on the floor, or George Karl will yank him. But aside from that, Kobe should spend the bulk of his time taking Billups out of the game.
Back to Fish. It's very encouraging to see him find his shot. Especially since we can often "hide" him defensively in this series, if we can get more second half Fisher, and less first half Fisher, the Lakers will be in great shape.
Trevor Ariza gets a pass. He didn't shoot well, and he struggled to guard Melo, and I honestly couldn't care less. He won the game with that steal, so he gets a pass.
Lamar Odom has been the "old Odom" for the last three or four games. That concerns me more than anything. Pau Gasol didn't play well in Game 1, but here's what we know about Gasol: For all of the "softness" rhetoric, Gasol is a mentally tough player who can always be counted on to bounce back strong after a bad game or a tough loss. In fact, it kinda seems like Gasol needs that extra "soft" fuel to get him going, sometimes. And when the buzz starts mounting about Gasol being soft, boy is he ever motivated to prove himself.
That does not appear to be the case with Odom. I don't have to tell you this, but I will anyways: Gasol can be counted on to bounce back, but for all we know, Odom's disappearing act might end tomorrow, or it might last for the remainder of the playoffs. This is a serious concern. If Odom is playing well, he's a massive matchup problem for anybody, and good games for Odom are virtually always Laker wins. With an aggressive, engaged Odom, I dare say that L.A. is nearly unstoppable. But it's asking a lot, isn't it? If there is one improvement I want to see for Game 2, it's for Odom to show back up.
Sasha Vujacic was once good for two things: good, pesky defense and high-percentage 3-point shooting. But his defense has now become little more than a predictable stream of unnecessary fouls that get the Lakers in the penalty far too early, and his percentage from distance has fallen through the floor. If he can't do either of the things he was once good for, he shouldn't be on the floor. Nail his ass to the bench. That's all I have to say about that.
Shannon "UPS" Brown was not himself on Tuesday. There is no doubt that he brought the effort, because he always brings the effort, but his effect on the game was missed. He has a way of galvanizing and energizing this team with big plays. I fully expect a better, more energetic showing from him tonight.
Regression to the Mean
Offensively, the Lakers are rarely this bad. They came out flatter than flat (even most of their flat games look lively compared to last night's start, with perhaps a single recent exception). No one save Kobe could score to save their lives, for much of the game. They were tired, unprepared, and as whorge pointed out in response to the recap, seemed to think they were still playing Houston:
Even though the Rockets took us to 7, the Nuggets basically understood that we were their likely WCF opponent, and prepared for almost a week for it — studying film, practicing sets, understanding how to attack us coming out of the Rockets series. I’m not so sure that start to the game was due to the fact that we came out flat, as much as it was that the Nuggets understood when and where to attack. We looked like we came out to face a Rockets team, not the Nuggets. The playoffs though, is about adjustments — we notched up our intensity and clawed our way back into the game. And we did this with having just one off day in between series to study up on these new attitude Nuggets.
I expect game 2 to be a good game for the Lakers. PJ understands that he needs to get his team prepared to play at a much faster pace than that 7 game Rockets series, get out in transition, and attack the post (cmon Pau, you can go around Nene and draw some fouls. You’re quick and smart enough to do so, and if you get by him, the Nuggets are more apt to foul than the Rockets ever were). We just need to understand that the game the Nuggets play is so much different than the Rockets, and we will adjust.
The Lakers have now had a moment to adjust to the Nuggets. Hopefully they will be better prepared for this team after a couple more days to focus on them, and ready to play a style geared toward beating the Nuggets, instead of the Rockets.
In all, a lot of things went poorly for the Lakers. And even more than the box score shows, the Lake Show just played really badly. The Nuggets shouldn't expect that to happen again.
At the same time, DexterFishmore pointed out that Carmelo Anthony will not shoot 83% True Shooting from the floor again. I'd also like to point out that Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen were hitting all sorts of ridiculous mid-range jumpers, floaters, and "pushers" (I don't know what else to call them – they were almost like shot puts) that are not their shot and are out of their range. To a certain extent, the Lakers dared the role players to beat them, and they almost did. After a tough loss like they got in Game 1, I don't expect the role players to be that good again.
On top of all that, the officiating was pretty horrible. I'm going to try and keep this to a minimum, but it must be mentioned – not as a complaint, because that's pointless, and I won't have it. But it is a valid point to raise, in that it's not likely to be that bad again, at least not tonight. The Dude Abides pointed out that Game 1 had the same officiating crew from Game 1 in Houston, and others mentioned before the game that this crew is a particularly road-friendly crew. TDA elaborates:
One thing in our favor is that we had trouble with that same officiating crew all season. That crew takes an “NBA East” view of the Lakers, in that if their opponent has a “physical” reputation, then they are allowed to be physical with the Lakers. But the Lakers have a “finesse” reputation, so they aren’t allowed to play the same way. That crew was the same one for Game 1 of the Houston-LA series, which was a Laker loss amid a large FT discrepancy in HOU’s favor. That’s why the Nuggets had a 29-11 FT advantage until there were 6 1/2 minutes left in the 4th quarter. At that point, there had not been one foul called on a Denver strip attempt for the entire game, and not one called on DEN on a rebound (but several on LA). However, everyone knows that if the home team goes to the hole in the 4th quarter, they will get the calls if they’re fouled (and sometimes if they’re not), so the Lakers, especially Kobe, went to the rack. That’s why DEN was so upset in the 4th, because the fouls they got away with for 3 1/2 quarters got called in the final six minutes (Carter, Nene). Anyway, it’s doubtful this series will see that same crew, so our guys should be in good shape.
So again, I bring this up not to complain, but simply to point out that it will likely be better tonight. This would be the case anyways, but be assured that the refs will have noticed the free throw disparity (and it will have been pointed out to them, repeatedly), and there is likely to be a certain degree of compensation, with the refs favoring L.A. slightly to make up for Game 1.
All things totaled, the Lakers won despite a pretty bad performance of their own, and a pretty stellar performance by the Nuggets. (Yes, I know they missed six free throws; yes, I know they made a couple key errors down the stretch; no, I don't care. There are no perfect games, and when so many other things go your way, you can't blame the game on the one or two things that went wrong.) This was the Nuggets' best chance at stealing a game in Staples. That was the case before the game ever started, and they got that chance. They couldn't capitalize. I don't expect them to play that well again, and I don't expect the Lakers to be that good.
The Lakers will have a dud game at some point in this series, but I don't expect this to be it. They played poorly in Game 1, they know it, and I fully expect them to return more to their normal selves in Game 2. Considering how Game 1 went, that doesn't bode well for the Nuggets.
Should be a solid Lakers win tonight, though not a blowout. A 2-0 series lead should put them firmly in command of the Western Conference Finals, and on track for a Finals matchup with... wait, who?