May 1, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) calls a play against the Denver Nuggets during the second half of game two of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
If there's one thing that changes when the playoffs comes along, it's that the concept of moral victories disappears. There's precious little context to take from a loss -- it's final, in the books, and just a deeper hole that you have to dig yourself out of. Insane shooting nights you can dismiss as outliers in the regular season are things you have to deal with as possibilities with very real consequences in the playoffs. So while the Lakers squeaked out a victory at home to take a two game lead in the series, do not doubt Denver's ability to take a game at home by virtue of shots simply falling despite whatever defensive adjustments are made, effort being expended, and so forth. They have the offensive firepower to do so at least once. This noted, we should remember that outliers are just that: outliers. The Lakers have consistently controlled the series via their vastly superior frontcourt and a healthy dose of Kobe Bryant and that formula is one that should give them victory in two of the next three, if my prediction is worth anything (hint: it's not). Altogether, this is what ultimately makes the playoffs exciting. To put it bluntly, stuff happens and we only find out the particulars of the proceedings game to game as twists are no doubt there to confound us.
- Kobe Bryant -- Of course, everything said above about the Nuggets heating up on offense applies to Kobe absolutely exploding at any given point to take control of a game. He blew away every Nuggets defender sent at him with deft footwork and his trademark difficult shot making yesterday, and it is not really clear what Denver should do in those circumstances. Arron Afflalo has proven that he cannot deal with Kobe in a straight-up situation, and Andre Miller and Corey Brewer will likely prove no better. The flip side is that putting more pressure on Kobe opens the door for utter dominance from Andrew Bynum, who has destroyed practically every instance of single coverage that he has seen this series. Giving Kobe a few somewhat tough long twos seems almost preferable to Bynum running rampant on the low block, and either way, Denver faces a classic Catch-22 here. If you were wondering why Kobe and Shaq were such a dominant combination, this is one of the foremost reasons, aside from the fact that both were -- and Kobe still is -- unbelievably good players. The only downside to Kobe's hot shooting is the number of times the Nuggets turned his misses into transition opportunities, but that goes on the defense as a whole, which was much shakier Tuesday than it was last Sunday.
- Andrew Bynum -- The amazing thing about Bynum is that even when he isn't fully invested into a game -- look at his effort level in Game 2 versus Game 1 -- he can still put up insane numbers. How many centers deal out 27 points on 12-20 shooting with nine rebounds and two blocks in 38 minutes and give you the impression that they were barely scratching the surface of their potential? His defensive effort was light years behind Sunday's historic performance, but he still impacted the Nuggets' offense merely by being there. On the other end, Denver sent soft doubles every time he touched the ball and while those rotations were slow on a fair portion, he was facing more defensive pressure than Kobe was on the perimeter. Granted, Bynum needs to work harder at claiming deep post position in those situations -- although there were quite a few instances in which the perimeter players were bizarrely incapable of throwing him an entry pass even when he was relatively open -- but that all flows into the effort category. A Bynum trying his utmost buries the Nuggets in Denver and sends the Lakers on a plane home with a first round victory. Only question is whether we will see that Bynum again, but given that he was brutally critiquing his own performance in the locker room after Game 2, that seems like a distinct possibility.
- Jordan Hill -- Well, any fears that Hill would let the recent allegations get to him appeared to have been rather unfounded. Any doubt, moreover, that his regular season rebounding numbers -- ninth in the league in overall rebound rate (19.5) -- were a fluke have been proven soundly false thus far this series. His athleticism and hustle are top notch and he literally has outfought two or three Nuggets defenders for offensive boards on a consistent basis practically every other possession. He probably is the Lakers' most effective pick-and-roll defender due to his solid lateral quickness and ability to successfully hedge and recover without a hitch. Assuming that he fixes his mid-range jumper -- 42.1% from 10-15 feet and 36.0% from 16-23 feet during his time with Houston this season, both solid marks -- his impact on offense will be felt even more. Lakers fans felt disappointed at the trade deadline that the team could not consummate a deal for Timberwolves forward Michael Beasley, but they may have found an even more intriguing and valuable piece in Hill. Send your kudos to Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, as this looks like a steal.
- Honorable mention goes to Pau Gasol, whose sheer consistency in his third-wheel role is becoming outrageous nowadays. His passing is otherworldly from either the high post or the low block and there is little doubt that he would have made hell of a point guard if he was a few inches shorter. He finds cutters, shooters, and especially Bynum for lobs from both spots, and you almost wish they ran the 4-5 pick-and-roll between him and Bynum more to maximize his passing gifts in that area. The defensive gap between him and Bynum is notably visible whenever the latter leaves the game, but Pau is doing a respectable job manning the middle and checking opponents at the four.
- Steve Blake -- That Game 1 optimism died pretty quickly, no? Blake looked positively awful in his second showing of the playoffs, displaying all of the foibles that Lakers fans have come to know too well in him nowadays. The hesitant and wayward shooting, the incredibly terrible and untimely turnovers, and complete lack of resistance on defense were all out in force, and the extended minutes for him have to be considered at least a bit questionable. All this noted, it is just one game and the Nuggets tightened a defense that had given him all those easy outside shots on Sunday. Nevertheless, the bad side of Blake is one that Lakers fans have become much more familiar with than the good, and it would not be remiss for them to expect much more of the former before seeing even a glimpse of the latter.
- Ramon Sessions -- Unfortunately, Sessions was not doing much to dispel the general sense of awfulness at the point guard position. He was missing easy looks at the rim -- although at least a few whistles may have been swallowed on some of those drives -- from mid-range and behind the arc, all while being roasted by Ty Lawson at the other end. He did end with a strong note, nailing a few buckets down the stretch in the fourth quarter to help the Lakers solidify the lead, and one wishes he followed Andrew Goudelock's example and relied on that sweet floater more than those stepback mid-range shots. We expected coming into the series that Sessions would have trouble checking Lawson and Miller on defense, but he needs to put greater work into how he deals with both as the games start in Denver. On a final note, while Sessions rebounds very respectably for a point guard, he was caught more than a few times fishing for offensive boards while the Nuggets ran out in transition, and that has to be rectified next game.
- Matt Barnes -- Maybe it's the gimpy ankle, but Barnes' accuracy has been off this series, especially from range. His trademark energy and willingness to attack the offensive glass are still there, although he was the victim of a particularly nasty JaVale McGee swat after securing a rebound on offense and trying for the layup. Even with those struggles in mind, Barnes is doing a fairly decent job, notably with his passing, as he has thrown more than one nice cross court pass to an open shooter from the corner. His defense appears slightly limited by the ankle, but the Nuggets' wing players have definitely not been the problem this series, aside from some hot shooting by Corey Brewer.
- (Dis)honorable mention goes to Devin Ebanks, who deserves only very light treatment in this section for his Game 2 efforts. Even though his shot wasn't falling, he was active on the glass, moving well on defense, and particularly good at making the extra pass on offense. Foul trouble stymied his early rhythm and forced an early substitution, something that no doubt interfered with his game for the rest of the contest, but like Barnes, he was generally solid when he was on the floor. For anyone who thought that the Lakers' small forward spot would be a position of weakness with Metta World Peace out for the series, Ebanks and Barnes have done a decent job at making us forget that sentiment.