Back to Denver we go, site of the only game that one team was the clear-cut better team in this series. That was in Game 4, the last game played in Denver, when the Nuggets were the better team from the first minutes to the last. Since then, the Lakers played an outstanding final 19 minutes of Game 5 and have taken control of the series with a 3-2 advantage. Now the Lakers are on the brink of the NBA Finals, but if the old saying is true, this fourth win will be the toughest of them all.
Game 5 proved a few things to the Lakers. The first is, when the energy and discipline is there, this team can play shutdown defense. In a stretch that lasted nearly an entire quarter, from the 7:37 mark of the third until the 7:52 mark of the fourth, the Lakers held the Nuggets to only five points. Granted, the Lakers got some help from the Nuggets who took some bad shots, missed some easy ones and looked befuddled out there, but the purple and gold played fantastic defense over that stretch that turned the game around. Add in a commitment to dominating the glass and we saw the Lakers take care of the two things we all know they need to take care of: their end of the court and the boards.
One other thing Game 5 proved was that while Denver is certainly a much improved squad, they've yet to prove that they can maintain their composure and make smart decisions late in games when it's necessary. Denver has earned loads of praise for the steps forward they've taken this year since the acquisition of Chauncey Billups and deservedly so. If this year's edition of the Nuggets had the same mindset as last year's, this series would be over, but they've yet to show the composure and poise necessary to win a title. The technical fouls keep coming and they come at inopportune times. There's been an inability to complete simple inbounds plays. They go away from their offense at times and end up taking bad shots, while defensively they play the passing lanes too much when they get overexcited and give up easy buckets. Now that their backs are against the wall and they need a victory, will they keep their composure? I'm one of Chauney Billups' biggest fans so I'd lean towards yes, but regardless of whether or not they can, the Lakers better believe they can because counting on a late game meltdown will assuredly get them in trouble.
The last thing the Lakers can take from Game 5 is that they can get to the basket and tear apart the Denver double team IF they have a plan to break it. Too often earlier in the series when Denver brought a double team, the four other Lakers would all go to the three point line and stand there, especially in Game 4. That's why the Lakers shot only 16 three pointers in Game 5 after taking 31 in Game 4. The Lakers were a mere 3-16, for a measly 19%, from the three point line in Game 5, but it didn't matter because they were taking it to the tin. The double team on Kobe was broken by a quick pass to Pau on the wing, 15 feet out. From there, the Lakers were playing four on three with guys like Lamar cutting to the basket, opening room on the outside where the guard had open jumpers or could pass it back into the big men on the repost.
Now, with five games in the series under our belt, it's time to take a look at what we've learned and how they apply to the keys to Game 6:
- I don't care how repetitive it gets, I'm going to say it again. The team that controls the five feet in front of the basket will win the game. Now, what's frustrating to fans is that controlling that five feet doesn't take much skill. The team that controls those five feet is the team that is aggressive taking the ball to the rim offensively and is physical beneath the basket to carve out space in getting a rebound. Those five feet are a matter of mindset and desire. Who has it in Game 6?
- I've heard two schools of thought regarding J.R. Smith. One is that he's only good for one great shooting night a series. If that theory is correct then the Lakers are in good shape because Smith, who does so much to open up the offense when he's on, already had that great game in Game 4. The other school of thought is that he's going to fare far better back at home and have another great shooting night. While the numbers suggest he's a better player at home than away (41% from 3 as opposed to 38% and 16.7 points as opposed to 13.7 points), the home numbers aren't so different that you think he's bound for another 20 point night, but you know that another big night could spell doom for the Lakers so do you subscribe to Theory A or Theory B?
- Can Denver stem the tide when the Lakers go on their inevitable run? Specifically, can they hold down the fort offensively and maintain their compsure? Take a look back to Game 5 when the Lakers' run started in the third. After the Lakers cut the lead to five, the Nuggets next 7 positions were as follows: Dahntay Jones blocked, Dahntay Jones putback layup, Trevor Ariza blocks Carmelo, Billups throws the ball away, Billups throws the ball away again, Carmelo travels, shot clock violation. So when the Lakers started their run, the Nuggets scored once, had two shots blocked and turned the ball over four consecutive times. When the Lakers go on their run in Game 6, how will Denver respond?
- How healthy in Lamar Odom? We saw the impact LO can make on a ballgame in Game 5 and by all accounts, he's on a myriad of pain killers just so he can play. His back is clearly bothering him and the pain isn't going away, but how will he deal with that pain? Odom made an impact in the first half of Game 5 despite his poor shooting, just by bringing energy, being active and being aggressive. When that energy, activity and aggressiveness was combined with some good finishing in the second half, the offense took off and his energy sparked the defense. Lamar's back may limit him physically, but he needs to be aggressive even if the finish isn't quite there.
- How will the officials call the game? This isn't a matter of whether or not the NBA has an agenda for the Lakers to move on or the NBA wanting to force a Game 7. The fact is, the Lakers benefit from a game called loosely with some contact allowed because of their size up front. The Nuggets benefit from a game called a bit tighter because of their front line depth and willingness to take the ball to the rim. How the game is called will have a major impact on the game and depending on how it's called, it will be intriguing to see how the teams adjust to the way the refs are calling it. Just as important as how the game is called is how each team adjusts.
- Can the Lakers be closers? They say the last game is always the hardest one to win, so can the Lakers take it to that next level to pick up that toughest win? As Glengarry Glen Ross said in a speech the Lakers are well aware of, "Always be closing."