Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers look to close out their first round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets with a tidy five game "gentleman's sweep". Denver will be throwing everything they can at extending the series, because they know if they can get things back to Denver and take care of business at home, anything can happen in a one game series. They are not in an enviable position. If past history is any indicator, even if the Lakers were to lose tonight, they have had little trouble over the years closing a playoff series on their opponent's home floor, which means they have three very good opportunities with which to win this series. But they only have one chance to keep pace.
Just in case your purple and gold sunglasses prevent you not only from vested interest in the other contests that make up the sum of the NBA Playoff experience, but also from a general awareness of the progression of the postseason, let me sum up the entire 1st round in one word: Fast. Now, I will use two words ... Blindingly fast. Two 1st round match-ups are already in the books, with San Antonio laying siege to the ghosts of playoff under-performance with a sweep of the Utah Jazz, and OKC making a mockery out of the Dallas Mavericks re-peat championship bid (in truth, Mark Cuban made a mockery of that chance before the season even started). Every other playoff series, in both conferences, sits at 3-1. There is a very decent chance that the entire first round could be over by tomorrow night. That would be the fastest first round since the playoffs switched to a 7 game format in 2002.
For that reason, it is important for the Lakers to take care of business. After all, the five guys facing the Lakers tonight may be wearing Nuggets uniforms, but they are not the Lakers' opponents, or more appropriately, they are not the Lakers' opponents who matter. If you assume that the 3-1 advantage the Lakers hold over the Nuggets is insurmountable, then the Lakers are no longer competing against Denver. They are competing against all the other teams who will advance, or already have. This is especially true since the Lakers' opponent in the next round, if the Lakers are able to close the deal, is already known.
Once you get this far into a playoff series, analysis of important aspects of the series begin to get stale. When you play the same team 4-7 times, patterns start to emerge, especially when one team or another seems to enjoy a significant advantage. For example, at this point, it has become abundantly clear that the Lakers have won the "pace" battle. Denver was one of the top offensive teams in the league this season, and part of the reason was a deep bench that attacked constantly. The Nuggets had the league's second highest pace on the season, averaging more than 94 possessions per game. The Lakers, with their plodding big men and brutally efficient half-court offense, work much better at a slower pace, and were in the bottom third of the league in pace, with 90.5 possessions per game. This playoff series was always going to be a contrast of styles, in which the Nuggets try to speed things up and the Lakers tried to slow things down, and whoever was more able to control the flow would have an advantage.
How has it turned out? The four contests have had an average of 89.7 possessions, less than the Lakers' season average. To be fair, the pace of games often slows down in the playoffs as teams are more careful and more defensive. And, offensive rebounds have played a huge role in keeping the number of possessions in the games down, with both teams pulling down copious amounts of O rebounds at times. But pace is one aspect of the battle which has been thoroughly and overwhelmingly won by the purple and gold.
Aside from pace, there are two main issues that have described Denver's inability to deal with the Lakers on a game by game basis: First, the Lakers have far too much size for Denver. The Nuggets have felt compelled to double Andrew Bynum nearly every time he touches the ball, and he and Pau Gasol have both done a good job (for the most part) of controlling the glass. Drew also has had a few spells (including all of Game 1) of complete and utter domination of the defensive paint, erasing the Nuggets ability to get to the rim. And Jordan Hill has been insanely good on the offensive glass, with individual rebound rates over 20% on both sides of the ball.
Second, Denver has failed to have enough breakout performances from their ensemble cast of players. The point of rolling eight deep with starting quality (as Denver does) is that, on any given night, a few dudes should have an above average contest. For Denver, it just hasn't worked out. Ty Lawson was excellent in Game 2 and Game 3, but terrible in Game 1 and the 2nd half of Game 4. Danilo Gallinari was decent in Game 1 and ridiculous in Game 4. Ja'Vale Mcgee had one decent game. Andre Miller has been absent a couple contests. And Aron Afflalo has been almost non-existent on the offensive end for the entire series. Bottom line: The Star-by-committee approach has not worked for the Nuggets. They need at least half of their working roster to play above average in order to have a chance to win against a Lakers team that knows exactly how their bread is buttered.
The Lakers, meanwhile, need to be focused. They need to know they have their opponents backed up against the wall, and play with the intent to kill their prey quickly instead of toying around with it. Not because they shouldn't take the Nuggets for granted, and not because its the right thing to do. The Lakers need to take care of business because the bigger, stronger opponent for the next fight is already waiting.