Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers look to rebound following their Game 3 defeat to the Denver Nuggets in Denver. That game's result, to say nothing of the Lakers' effort and execution, were very, very predictable. There's a good reason why nobody on our crack writing staff predicted the Lakers would sweep this series. Even if plenty of folks think the Nuggets are over-matched, the Lakers have a habit of under-matching intensity. With the defeat, the Lakers' chances for a sweep are gone, but they remain theoretically on schedule for the "gentleman's" sweep. A gentleman's sweep is when one team is clearly better than the other in a playoff series, but lets one game on the road get away before re-establishing their dominance and closing the series out in five games. If the Lakers win tonight, they will be well on their way to exactly that kind of series.
And it might end up being important that they do wrap things up quickly, because the prospective opponent in the next round is already known. By white-washing the defending champs in four games, Oklahoma City is waiting for the winner of this series. They get to rest, and prepare, for their opponent for many, many days. If the Lakers want to have as much of the same advantage as possible, taking care of business quickly will be of the utmost importance.
But is it that simple? Is Game 3, in which the Nuggets won easily, really so easily written off? We'll know soon enough, but there is plenty of reason to believe it.
Game 3 can very easily be broken down into two very distinct periods: The beginning of the game, in which the Nuggets hit their shots, and rebounded every single one of their misses, and the rest of the game, which played out much as the rest of the series has, with the Lakers taking advantage of a Denver team that struggles offensively against the Lakers' size. The beginning saw the Nuggets go up by as many as 24 points, just a few minutes into the 2nd quarter. The rest of the game saw the Lakers cut that lead down to 7 before a late scoring surge established the 15 point final tally.
In building up their insurmountable lead, the Nuggets took advantage of cheap Laker turnovers and waning Laker energy. In the first quarter alone, the Lakers turned the ball over 5 times, and gave up six offensive rebounds, compared to just two turnovers for Denver and zero offensive rebounds for the Lakers. In fact, through the first quarter, Denver had as many offensive rebounds as the Lakers had rebounds total. The Nuggets were pursuing the ball with reckless abandon, and the Lakers either couldn't handle it, or couldn't be bothered to.
One has to imagine it was the latter. After all, when your starting lineup consists of two seven footers who tower over their Nuggets counterparts, you shouldn't be getting completely destroyed on the offensive glass. But the result was also predictable. Denver had all the motivation in the world to win the game by any means necessary, and the Lakers motivation clearly wasn't as strong. We've seen this from the Lakers all too many times before, where games on the road in the playoffs are considered expendable if they have a sizable cushion.
But a loss tonight would be of far greater importance. A loss tonight would put the Lakers and Nuggets right back on an even playing field, where just one slip up at Staples Center would be enough to give the Nuggets a chance for victory. Tonight, we'll get a much clearer indication of whether the Lakers did what the Lakers do, and decided to take it easy for a night, or whether the rarefied air of the Mile High City causes the Lakers problems that can't be solved by "flipping the switch".
Of primary importance tonight will be playing a smarter brand of basketball than they did on Friday night. It's not just limiting the turnovers (15) or offensive rebounds (19) given up. It's slowing the game down to a pace that suits the Lakers more than the Nuggets. Game 3 had 91 possessions total, which isn't a very high number, but that number is weighed down by the 32 combined offensive rebounds of both teams deflating the overall pace. When neither team was able to rebound their own shots, the Nuggets did a fantastic job of changing ends on the floor. The Nuggets also outscored the Lakers in the paint by 20, which should never, ever happen when you have two low post scoring threats like Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol combined in Game 3 for just 24 shots, hitting 12 of them. Kobe Bryant had 23 shots on his own. The latter number isn't necessarily too high, but the former number is most certainly too low. The Nuggets have done a good job in this series of double teaming Bynum quickly and effectively, limiting the points he can score because he usually has to pass out of the double team. Until Friday, Kobe has done a good job of taking advantage of his defender with the focus on Bynum, but Game 3 saw Kobe struggle with his shot (7-23) and his decision making (6 turnovers). If the Nuggets are going to focus so heavily on making sure they aren't beaten inside, Kobe needs to make sure they are beaten outside.
Kobe's played three times in Denver this season and the results for him have not been good. He's averaging less than 30% shooting, and more than 4 turnovers per game. The concept that this is because any Denver defenders are in his head is laughable. He was dominant in both of the first two games in this series. And it's been over a decade since playing the road has had any possible implications on his play. Denver has good individual perimeter defenders, and so it shouldn't be surprising if Kobe is less effective than usual from time to time against the Nuggets. But his poor performances have been especially fluke-y in Denver this year. Tonight is just another opportunity for him to take care of business.
There's a lot at stake tonight for the Lakers, far more than in Game 3. A loss tonight brings this series back to being legitimately in question, whereas a win all but places the Lakers in the next round. A loss guarantees their attentions will be focused on the Nuggets for another week, and a win allows them to turn one eye to an OKC Thunder team that has been a challenge all season long. Tonight, the Lakers have the opportunity to set up the gentleman's sweep. And this team is nothing if not gentlemanly, right?