For the first time in these playoffs, predictions are mixed when it comes to the Lakers. Some say Lakers in 7, some as few as 5; others (including our own Timbo) say Nuggets in 6. The Lakers are the better team; the Nuggets, so far, are playing like the better team. The Lakers have the greater potential; the Nuggets are fulfilling more of their potential.
Even those of us who choose the Lakers to win this series will have to admit that we no longer feel confident predicting what the Lakers will do. And we recognize that in doing so anyways, we might invite a few of our own up close encounters with flying fast food. But that's what we
get paid to do, so we'll do our best to give you a decent sense of what to expect heading into this series.
As we did yesterday to recap the Lakers' second round win over the Rockets, the SS&R authors weigh in for a Round Table Series Preview of the Western Conference Finals, featuring our own Lakers versus the Denver Nuggets.
I think many are predicting this will be a very tough series for LA, and some probably think the Lakers might even be the underdogs; but I think that's a mistake to think that way. Houston had something the Nuggets do not, namely people who can guard Kobe. This will be Kobe's easiest matchup so far in the playoffs, as he'll be squared off against Dahntay Jones and JR Smith, both of whom are really too small to guard Kobe. Chauncey Billups has had a great playoff run so far, but he won't be able to bully Derek Fisher around the way he did Chris Paul and JJ Barrea. Because of the size and strength of Billups and backup PG Anthony Carter, I look for Farmar to get a decreased role again as the Lakers look more to a combination of Fisher and Brown, the way they did against Utah. Carmelo Anthony has also looked great in these playoffs, but for whatever reason Luke Walton has seemed to be his kryptonite in the past, and combined with Trevor Ariza I think that will be by far the toughest challenge he's faced so far. Then you have Nene, Kenyon Martin and The Birdman, Chris Andersen, who will try to match up with the size of Bynum, Gasol and Odom, and I think that matchup ultimately favors LA. It's going to be a tough fought match, and it's going to be extremely exciting; but the Lakers have owned Denver's number lately, winning 10 of the last 11 meetings (including going 4-0 in last year's playoffs), and I don't expect that to change so drastically in this series as to tilt things in Denver's favor.
Lakers in 6.
While Denver is playing excellent basketball right now and the Lakers needed seven to take down an undermanned Rockets squad, I don't think LA will have too much trouble with the Nuggets. Basketball is more of a matchup game than most believe and the matchup with Denver is far more favorable for the Lakers than the matchup with Houston was.
The most glaring mismatch that favors the Lakers is Kobe vs. whoever Denver chooses to play at shooting guard. Houston had a pair of excellent bodies to throw at Kobe that made him work extremely hard for his points. Kobe should be able to score plenty against Denver and the Nuggets also tend to foul him a lot so he won't have to work overly hard for his points. The Nuggets front line is one of the team's strengths, but they're not an overly skilled front line. They rely on their athleticism and energy mostly, which should keep them from making too much of an offensive impact that could get the Lakers in foul trouble.
Denver isn't an easy place to play and Chauncey Billups is the best point guard left in the playoffs. He's a clutch player who will have a few huge games this series that should net the Nuggets a pair of wins, but those will be their only wins of the series.
Lakers in 6.
After Game Six of the Houston series, I was ready to predict a Denver upset in the conference finals. The Nuggets have been that impressive, and the Lakers at times that bad. But in Game Seven I saw just enough of Classic Bynum to believe that he can be a force in this series. And for Denver, transitioning from New Orleans and Dallas to the Lakers is a massive jump up in competition, and as they haven’t played since May 13th, I don’t think they’ll be able to adjust right away. This will be a competitive series with more close games than not, but home-court advantage will be the difference.
Lakers in 7.
This prediction comes with a caveat, becuase I believe that this series will end in 6 either way. I am hoping that it is the Lakers that win, but I will take the Nuggets in 6 before I take the Lakers in 7. It just seems like this will be a series where once a team gets an edge, they will put the pedal to the metal. As talented as they are, Denver is a much better match-up for us than Houston was. While their defense is much improved and probably more consistent than the Lakers' is, Denver still likes to push the ball and score a lot (Billups loves to get a quick shot in transition). And if the Nuggets like to run, then the Lakers love to, so I see a high scoring affair playing right into the Lakers hands. The biggest question for me is which Denver team shows up, this year's or last year's? The Nuggets have yet to face a real challange, and if they find themsleves down by 10 in Game 4 with the Lakers leading 2-1, will they remained poised like their new floor general, or will the give up and turn to fighting and wild shots like last year? The Lakers are obviously a team with poise, so if the Nuggets lose theirs, then this series will be over in a hurry. Look for Kobe to score a lot, and hopefully the team will play some defense as well. Do I think that the Lakers will remember all the lessons fromthe Houston series? No. But hopefully they will have learned enough to advance to the Finals.
Lakers in 6.
As the Houston series proved, predicting a series involving the Lakers is about as easy as taking an exam for a undisclosed subject. No matter how much knowledge you have, you might fail because you just don't know what to expect. Think about all the possible outcomes to this series, from a Nuggets sweep to a Lakers sweep. How many of those possibilities can you rule out? If the Game 4 Lakers show up (or should we say, don't show up) once or twice, especially in the first two home games, are you really willing to rule out a nuggets sweep? If the Game 5 Lakers show up every game, a Lakers sweep is guaranteed. Neither scenario is likely, but at this point I can't rule either one out.
Part of me wants to say this goes to the Lakers in 5. I think the Lakers have much better matchups against Denver than against the Rockets. I think the Lakers have better answers for Chauncey and Melo than the Nugs have for Kobe and Pau. I think that all the publicity Denver's playoff success has garnered compared to the Lakers struggle will see a motivated Laker team come out in Game 1. Also, there is no possibility of rust, which is what helped put the team behind the 8 ball in the last series. I think that the Lakers have faced a much stronger test than Denver has so far this postseason. I think I just like predicting 5 game Laker victories. It's easy to see a motivated Lakers team come out strong and win the first two home games, lose game 3, respond with their normal "You can't beat us twice in a row" effort in game 4, and close things out at home in game 5.
So why not go with that? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I'm unwilling to bank on a determined Lakers effort for any more than 1 game in a row. I think the Lakers will take Game 1, and if they do, I don't think they lose the series. But I also don't think they will close it out in a strong fashion until they have to.
Silver Screen & Roll
For starters, you can read some of my thoughts on this series in my series preview for Ball Don't Lie. By now, you've heard me point out that while the Lakers still have a ways to go, they have undeniably improved significantly since the first round. So what I want to focus on right now is what I touched on briefly at BDL:
I’m also not convinced that Denver matches up well with L.A. They don’t do the things that cause the Lakers to struggle — in fact, their game tends to feed into what the Lakers want to do. And it all starts with running.
Denver loves to run. The thing is, so do the Lakers. And it’s not just because they score easy baskets or tire the other team out — those are the typical, cliché reasons for being a fast-paced team. For the Lakers, it’s more than that. Against the Lakers, your best shot is to take Kobe’s teammates out of the game and make him beat you by himself. And believe me, he can definitely do that — but at least there’s a chance that his shots don’t go down. But if the entire team gets involved and gets rolling, there’s just no stopping the Lakers.
The Lakers are also much easier to beat if you can convince them not to play defense. And here’s the thing about this squad: Unlike most, it is their offense that creates their defense. When things are clicking offensively, the entire team gets involved and active on defense.
When teams let the Lakers run, it creates easy opportunities across the board, gets all players involved, and generally increases the energy and involvement of the entire team. Most importantly, it fuels them defensively — and when the role players are contributing and the team is playing defense, this team is virtually impossible to beat.
Of course, the matchups seem to favor Los Angeles, as well. Most glaringly, Houston had what no one in the league has: two premier perimeter defenders that can make life hard for Kobe. Denver doesn’t even have one. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony has struggled against the Lakers, and while it’s not something I’m willing to bet my life savings on, it shouldn’t be overlooked. Nene, also, has struggled against Bynum, and Pau Gasol has a clear length advantage over Kenyon Martin. Really, the only matchup I see strongly favoring the Nuggets is the point guard, and I’m intrigued to see how Shannon Brown does defending him — he’s got the size, strength, and speed, and he’s a very good defender. But will Phil Jackosn play him?
I can't emphasize enough how well the running game plays into the Lakers hands. Usually, when pace is mentioned it is because one team prefers to play slow, and the other fast, which means that whoever can control the pace can control the game. In this case, both teams like to play fast, but it's not the pace of the game itself that really matters here. It's the effect of playing at a high pace.
There are three ways to beat the Lakers, and your best shot is to try and cause all three things to happen.
- Get them to play disinterested, low-intensity basketball. When they're not fully engaged, playing with intensity, their defense goes out the window and their offense becomes an endless barrage of jumpshots. But if the Lakers are engaged, playing with intensity, you've got problems.
- Convince them not to play defense. You'll still have to deal with their offense, but if they're playing great defense, they're virtually unbeatable. Get them to skip the defensive effort, and you've got a shot.
- Take the "rest of the team" out of the game. Kobe Bryant is incredible, and he can beat you all by himself – but that becomes harder agianst good teams in the playoffs, and this team's strength is in its depth of talent. If the role players and bench mob are involved, hitting shots and creating plays, then you're screwed, because when they play like that, they can beat you without Kobe. Add Kobe to that mix, and it's game over.
It's not always possible to do all of the above. For that matter, it's not always possible to do any of the above. Much of it depends on the Lakers – did they come to play? Are they running the offense, giving the effort on defense? If so, there may not be much you can do. But what you can do is do the things that make it more likely for the Lakers to take themselves out of the game – and, conversely, not do the things that get them into it.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, running is the number one thing that gets the Lakers into the game. It often involves Kobe passing, other players making great plays, and role players finishing. Most of all, it builds energy. And as some have pointed out here at SS&R, the Lakers' defense is fueled by their offense (as opposed to most other teams, which are the other way around).
Getting easy offense on the run builds energy, fuels the defense, and gets the entire team involved and engaged. All of the things the Lakers' opponents don't want to happen.
Let's talk more about Kobe. Houston had not one, but two first class perimeter defenders that could make life difficult for Kobe. How did that go for them? He averaged 27.4 points per game while shooting .453 from the field and .344 from distance, along with 5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2 steals, and only 1.57 turnovers. We've seen him better, but he didn't exactly struggle.
Now consider that the Nuggets don't even have one perimeter defender that can make Kobe's life difficult, and this prediction is easy. The WCF should be Kobe's best series to date, and his easiest. And what if, as I've suggested, the rest of the team is involved, playing with energy and intesity, getting out on the break and hitting shots? Then you've got even less room to throw extra help at Bryant – meaning he's going to have a field day.
The big men are really the X-Factors here. Nene tends to struggle against Bynum, but aside from a couple good showings, Bynum hasn't been himself lately. Kenyon Martin and Chris "Birdman" Andersen might be able to play physical enough defense to bother Pau Gasol, but if Gasol can respond with some mental toughness and resiliency, he's got the length and agility to get the best of that matchup. On the other end of the court, the Nuggets' front line isn't exactly an offensive force in the paint. If Gasol and Bynum are active on defense, their length and quickness will be a nightmare for the Nuggets' bigs.
Still, all of this depends on which Gasol and Bynum show up. If they pull a disappearing act, the Nuggets play with high energy and will take advantage of them. But if they come to play, the matchup is theirs to exploit.
At the point guard, I'm hoping to see more of Shannon Brown. Billups is one of the best at that position, and knows how to win in the playoffs. I like Fisher in this series more than in the last one, because it's not about quick guard penetration. Chauncey can get into the paint when he wants, but his strengths are his size and strength, and his ability to hit the 3-ball. Fisher's size and strength will help him against Billups, but more significantly, Shannon "UPS" Brown also has the required size and strength, and he's also got something Fisher has lost: speed and lateral quickness. I'm not at all confident in Phil Jackson's point guard rotations, but I'm really hoping Brown gets a real chance at guarding Billups.
Again, though, this matchup may actually depend on the Lakers' bigs. Lakers fans remember that Chauncey has beat us in the past, and some may not be that confident in Fisher's ability to defend him. But that's misplaced blame from the 2004 Finals. Billups had his way not because Fisher couldn't keep up, but because Shaq wouldn't defend the pick and roll. His own words, to Baron Davis at the end of last season:
"The Lakers' weakness was pick-and-roll defense, so we were going to make them stop that," [Billups] says. "It didn't matter who was guarding me; my job was to pick-and-roll Shaq. Every series has its own version of that. And if we have to run it every time, we run it every time."
If the Lakers' bigs don't help on the pick and roll, Laker fans may be in for a dreadfully familiar sight. But if Gasol and Bynum play the pick and roll the way they did in Game 7 against Houston, Fisher and Brown should be able to handle him on the perimeter, and we'll be off to a good start defensively.
Carmelo Anthony is the matchup that puzzles me. He has really struggled against the Lakers – even with the likes of Luke Walton guarding him. On the one hand, I don't feel at all confident predicting that such a trend will continue. On the other, it's almost too hard to ignore. Look for the Lakers to continue what they've been doing against him – if they can take him out of the game, the Nuggets will be hard pressed to keep up with our Lakers.
It comes down to the same old things: Energy and effort, defensive intensity, and the matchups of the bigs and smalls. Overall, I think the Nuggets are a better team than the Rockets, but I don't think they matchup well with the Lakers. Their game isn't designed to take the Lakers out of their game; quite the opposite. And if the Lakers can play their game, and do so with energy and passion, I really do believe they're nearly impossible to beat.
Lakers in 7.