Game 4 was disappointingly predictable. The Nuggets were in a must-win situation; the Lakers were not. The Nuggets played hard; the Lakers did not. Both frustrating and comforting at the same time was the knowledge that L.A. did not play their best in the lopsided loss to Denver – frustrating, because we wish they would; comforting, because we know they can do better.
As usual, the Lakers primary struggles in Denver were not in areas of skill or ability. Those who would claim that Game 4 proved the Nuggets to be the better team have yet to understand these Lakers. Instead, the Lakers primary struggles were rooted, as always, in motivation and effort. Of the former, they had little; of the latter, they gave even less. They were tired – understandably so, though they have only themselves to blame – and given the circumstances, they decided it wasn't worth the effort.
Game 5 should be equally predictable. As they have after every loss, the Lakers will come out with energy and intensity, playing well on both ends of the court. As tired and apathetic as they were in the previous game, they will be equally engaged and driven in the game to come.
That the Lakers will come to play in Game 5 should be a given. But how should their renewed energy be applied, in order for the Lakers to maintain control of the series? Simple: In areas that are fully under a team's control, requiring little more than effort itself to deliver a strong performance.
These also happen to be the areas in which the listless Lakers of Game 4 failed completely: defense and rebounding. If they play with intensity to control these two aspects of the game, the rest will fall into place, and the result will be a Lakers win.
If you've been paying attention at all, you know how poorly the Lakers performed on defense and on the glass in Game 4. Here's a quick refresher:
It was about effort. And for the full story, look no further than the rebounding columns in the box score – the Nuggets were +11 in offensive rebounds, and +18 in total rebounds.
Off Reb Def Reb Total Reb Off Reb Rate Def Reb Rate Lakers 9 31 40 23% 61% Nuggets 20 38 58 77% 39%
By themselves, these numbers already speak volumes to the Lakers' Game 4 performance. Considering that the Lakers have the distinct height advantage should make it even clearer that L.A. simply got out-hustled on Monday. But what really puts this into perspective is the teams' recent history.
- In the first two games of the series, the Lakers rebounded a stellar 35% of their own misses.
- By contrast, Denver was only able to get to 30% of their own misses in the first two games.
- In the regular season, the Lakers also rebounded at a rate of 35% on offense.
- On defense, however, they tracked down an impressive 78% of Denver's misses, holding Denver to a 22% offensive rebounding rate.
Compare that with the numbers from Game 4, above, and you see the problem. This is a team that has no business even matching the Lakers in rebounding, on either end of the court. On Monday, they didn't just match the Lakers on the boards – they destroyed them. Their 20 offensive rebounds, in particular, resulted in 23 second-chance points – easily the biggest difference in the game.
The Lakers' bigs need to man up. This isn't just about hitting the double-digit mark in the rebounds column; this is about preventing Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen, and Nene from totaling 42 rebounds between the three of them. It's about giving the Nuggets one shot on offense (preferably a contested one), and only one.
The Lakers perimeter players may need to step up some, as well. While they may prefer to leak out for early, quick offense, that offense won't materialize if the Nuggets are busy collecting offensive rebounds and taking second and third shots. As a team, the Lakers need to play a brand of defense conducive to solid rebounding. Gambling on steals must be kept to a minimum; the Lakers must play for defensive position, keeping Denver out of the paint, forcing contested jumpshots, and cleaning the glass when they miss.
And for God's sake, someone pick up Andersen! You want to talk predictability? "The Birdman" has one thing on his mind; everyone already knows what he's going to do. To leave him unattended once the shot goes up is essentially to hand him a second chance opportunity.
Defensively, the Nuggets' front line deserves greater emphasis. Offensively talented they are not, but as we've just seen, that changes when they're collecting absurd amounts of offensive rebounds. The Lakers need to pack it in, challenging the Nuggets to beat them from outside. Billups may hit some mid-range jumpshots, and Anthony may hit some threes, but in the end, this is far preferable to the alternative of the Nuggets dominating the boards and scoring heavily in the paint. Placing greater defensive emphasis on Denver's front line, while packing it in and defending the paint, will not only force Denver to hit tougher shots, but will also contribute to the aforementioned goal of winning the rebounding battle.
As far as matchups, I want to see more of Luke Walton on Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe Bryant on Chauncey Billups. In the latter matchup, Kobe has unquestionably had the upper hand. Billups has been good, and has hit some key shots, but he has also been consistently inefficient throughout the series. As for the Walton-Melo matchup, I must admit it completely puzzles me. Walton isn't one of tremendous foot speed, and he's not normally known for his defense. Nonetheless, while no single player should expect to completely shut Carmelo down, Walton has had tremendous success defending him, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. While the officials seemed already to have decided that Walton couldn't guard Anthony late in Game 4, and were expecting the foul well before it happened, I don't expect that trend to continue in Los Angeles, so Luke should get some good minutes on Melo.
Speaking of officiating, I expect the series to balance out once again (unfortunate though it may be, idealistically speaking). In the playoffs, the Lakers's opponents have taken more free throws in nine of 16 games. In this series, Denver has had the free throw shooting edge in three out of four games. In the first three games, the team that seemed to get the short end of the officiating stick in the first half received more favorable calls in the second half, and particularly in the fourth quarter – but in Game 4, that balancing effect never happened.
As always, I raise these points not as a matter of complaint, or to provide an excuse for any of the Lakers' losses, but as a simple matter of observation and expectation heading into the next game. These things do tend to balance out, and a part of me suspects that to be more than just the natural ebb and flow of a series. Phil Jackson has made his protests clear and driven home his point regarding the officiating, both in the middle of Game 4 and after it, and I expect that he will get his way in Game 5. In Staples Center, after the Nuggets shot 49 free throws in the previous game, and in light of the numerous less-than-sportsmanlike displays by various Nuggets throughout the game, expect the whistle to be less of a hindrance to the Lakers in tonight's game.
In the end, this isn't about which team is better. If anything, it might be impossible to judge such a thing, simply because of the manner in which each team applies its talent. Furthermore, it is unclear as to whether we will ever see both of these teams playing at their best against each other. Game 5 will be decided by effort – namely, the effort put forth by the Lakers. For Los Angeles, this effort must begin with defense and rebounding.