Will the Nuggets capture the Lakers attention?

via www.bballvideos.com


Since Kobe Bryant's return from a 3 week layoff on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers have played some pretty uninspired basketball.  The bunker mentality, the high effort defense, and the crisp offensive execution we saw in Kobe's absence are all but gone, replaced by the same kind of laziness, sloppiness, and general ugliness which have unfortunately been the Lakers' calling card for most of the season.  That I can truthfully speak so negatively about the Lakers as they have won 2 of the past 3, with only a close loss at a chief Western rival, and remain only 1 1/2 games behind the best record in the league, is a testament to just how good the team can be, but also how little time they've spent looking as good as they can. 

Just to be clear, I'm certainly not putting this on Kobe, or at least, not entirely.  The difference in effort and concentration from players 2-12 on the roster has been quite noticeable.  Kobe came back, and the Lakers fell right back into step on the "We're a lot better than everybody else, so 70-80% ought to be enough to get the W" mode.  We saw a lot of this last season as well, but with one major difference; Last season, the Lakers were willing and able to get up for the good teams, posting a very good record against the league's elite.  This season, the team's performance against the league's elite has left a lot to be desired.  The only question is whether the Lakers aren't getting up for the good teams because they don't care yet, or because they can't.  It's a question that will be answered in May and June.  That said, if ever there was a regular season game which should have the Lakers attention, tomorrow's game against the Denver Nuggets is it.

The Denver Nuggets are certainly one of the league's best teams. At 39-19, they have the 2nd best record in the West, 4 games behind L.A., and the 3rd best record in the league. However, their overall record is actually pretty poor when you consider how well they've played against the other elite teams, because the Nuggets have beaten the best teams in the league with some regularity, and often with huge margins of victory.  The Lakers should know all to well about this.  The two teams have met twice, and neither is a memory Laker fans want to re-visit.  The 1st was a 26 point beat down in Denver, and the 2nd was a 13 point loss at Staples, highlighted by Chauncey Billups going off, shooting 9-13 from 3 point range.  The Lakers have pretty legitimate excuses for losing both games (1st game was a back to back in Denver, which is a phenomenon unto itself, 2nd game nobody can deal with that kind of shooting performance), but champions shouldn't need excuses, no matter how legitimate.

There's more than one way to look at the importance of tomorrow's game.  One school says the Lakers need to beat the Nuggets to prove to themselves that they can.  There's no excuse for tomorrow's game.  The Lakers are rested, they are relatively healthy, they are at home.  A loss tomorrow could further cement the idea that the Nuggets are simply better than L.A.  It could ... but honestly, it won't.  The Lakers are the reigning champs.  They beat Denver in the playoffs last year.  Regardless of tomorrow's result, the Lakers will absolutely still have confidence in their ability to beat Denver in the playoffs.

Another school says the Lakers need to beat the Nuggets to prove to the Nuggets that they can.  This is a lot closer to the truth.  Denver is not a team you want having a ton of confidence against you.  Simply put, the Nuggets have three players who can single-handedly win a game if they get hot (Melo, Billups, JR Smith), and the Lakers have experienced it from all three.  However, only Melo is consistent in his dominance, and Smith is almost as likely to shoot Denver out of a game as into one.  So, a win tomorrow is important because it allows doubt to creep into Denver's minds.  A loss tomorrow, with the last matchup of this season being a tough one in Denver, allows for the possibility that the Nuggets would sweep L.A., and if that were to occur, the Nuggets would have zero doubt about their ability to win a playoff series as well.

Finally come the people who say that nothing matters until the playoffs.  Tomorrow's game, while important, won't define anything.  They could very well be right, but I can't just dismiss regular season results into the void like that.  If the Lakers don't win tomorrow's game, it will mean something.

In discussing how the teams match up, the most fascinating aspect of watching these two teams play is when the Nuggets offense goes against the Lakers defense.  The Nuggets are one of the best offensive teams in the league, and they do it with great 3 pt shooting and an ability to get to the free throw line an insane amount of the time.  Denver leads the league in free throw attempts per field goal at about 30% FT/FGA.  2nd is Toronto, a full 4 points below them at 26%.  Compare that to the Lakers, who are one of the best defensive teams in the league, and they do it by making it difficult for their opponents to hit 3s, and by not fouling at all.  Everything Denver is good at doing on offense, the Lakers are good at stopping on defense.  Something's gotta give, and whatever does will be the key to who wins or loses this game.

The aggressiveness of the Nuggets is always good for bringing the officiating into the conversation.  If there's one thing Nuggets and Lakers fans can agree on, its that games between the two teams are often poorly officiated.  It's just too bad we can't all agree on which ones.  Since the Nuggets live at the foul line so much by design, it's only a matter of time before one side or the other, or both, start commenting on the calls, so prepare yourself for the inevitable.

The Nuggets may be without Kenyon Martin, although to be honest, I'm not sure how much that works in the Lakers' favor.  As far as I can tell, the Lakers favorite defense against the Nuggets is to leave K-Mart open from 15-20 feet and hope he bites.  But, the lack of K-Mart should allow the Lakers to exploit the edge inside, as Martin is one of the Nuggets best interior defenders.  It'll be important for Bynum to improve on previous performances, as Nene made Bynum look pretty pedestrian the last time these two teams met.

Lakers

Nuggets

RECORD

44-15

39-19

NET POINTS PER GAME

+6.4 (2)

5.0 (3)

PACE

93.5 (9)

95.2 (5)

OFFENSIVE RATING

108.8 (10)

112.4 (2)

Turnover Rate (Off.)

12.2% (2)

13.2% (3)

FTA/FGA (Off.)

0.214 (26)

0.303 (1)

Free-Throw %

77.1 (11)

77.5 (8)

3PT FGA/FGA (Off.)

0.22 (11)

0.21 (19)

3PT% (Off.)

34.5 (18)

37.8 (3)

Effective FG% (Off.)

49.8 (14)

51.4 (7)

True Shooting% (Off.)

54.0 (14)

56.7 (2)

Off Rebounding Rate

27.0% (14)

26.3% (17)

DEFENSIVE RATING

102.0 (1)

107.2 (16)

Turnover Rate (Def.)

13.4% (18)

13.9% (10)

FTA/FGA (Def.)

0.192 (1)

0.24 (21)

3PT FGA/FGA (Def.)

0.23 (21)

0.22 (17)

3PT% (Def.)

31.9 (1)

33.5 (3)

Effective FG% (Def.)

47.6 (2)

49.8 (15)

True Shooting% (Def.)

51.5 (1)

54.4 (18)

Def Rebounding Rate

74.7% (7)

727% (23)

Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank. All numbers courtesy of Basketball Reference and HoopData.

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