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Nuggets - Lakers Preview: New look, same feel

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Today's matinee contest between the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers will showcase the two teams that bear the least resemblance to the early season versions of themselves.  It should surprise no one that the Nuggets fall in this category.  Having spent most of the season dealing with a passive aggressive superstar who wanted to get out of town on terms so specific they belonged on a legal document, the trade that sent Melo along with Chauncey Billups to New York for Danillo Galinari, Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton et. al. seemed to be a mercy killing at the time.  Trading away Melo was a sign that the Nuggets should look to rebuild, because their team no longer has a focal point.

Somebody apparently forgot to tell the Nuggets themselves.  Instead of folding like a house of cards, or even holding steady while trying to forge a new identity, the Nuggets have exploded.  Their lack of a focal point hasn't caused them to disappear.  Instead, it has caused their light to reflect in a thousand different directions, and teams have struggled in trying to contain them.  Since the trade (and the All-Star break) only one team has played better than the Denver Nuggets.

You know of which team I speak, and they too are a changed squad from the season's early stages.  They didn't sign any new players or make any blockbuster trades, and yet the team is undoubtedly changed.  The Lakers are 17-1 since the All-Star break, and they've mostly succeeded by locking down defensively in a way other teams might not have been able to imagine.  So, despite a storied history between these two teams over the past few years, today's contest will be surprisingly unfamiliar.

What won't be unfamiliar is just how much the Denver Nuggets will want to destroy the Lakers.  There is nothing the Nuggets love better than to run up the score against the Lakers and treat the victory like a real accomplishment.  With both teams riding high, but the Lakers riding much higher, you can bet landing a big win against the streaking champs would be the highlight of Denver's season, and they are still quite capable of delivering such a blow.  That's because the Nuggets are explosive, in every possible meaning of the word.  No team in the league has more offensive talent.  It was true when Carmelo Anthony led the charge, and it is true now.  They've done a decent job of harnessing said talent this season, leading the league with 112.4 OR (the only team ahead of the Lakers' 119.9), but on any given night, the Nuggets can hit shots in a way that no team can keep up with. 

So why aren't the Nuggets winning championships and ruling the league?  Defense is one reason, they don't play that side of the ball particularly well.  Their defense isn't bad because they don't have the personnel; few teams are as athletic as Denver is, and while they don't exactly have the Lakers' size or talent in the front-court, Nene, Kenyon Martin and the Birdman form a rather formidable group.  No, the reason their defense (which it should be said is much improved since the trade, in part because Wilson Chandler defends all the time like Melo defends once in a blue moon) isn't that great is because focus is not this team's strong point.  Which brings us to the other reason the Nuggets are not considered a real threat in the postseason, that other form of explosiveness.  The Nuggets' style is to live on the brink between controlled chaos, and just chaos, and when push comes to shove, they can be pushed over the cliff just about every time.  It is that aspect of the Nuggets that has been the main reason for their departure from the post season in the past few years, and that aspect of their psyche likely remains (though we won't know it until they get pushed in the playoffs).

Matchups?  You'll never have guessed this, but the Lakers' best chance for success comes inside.  Nene usually does a good job on Andrew Bynum, but with Bynum playing a lot bigger this year, he should theoretically be able to bully Nene in the post.  Meanwhile, Pau Gasol is automatic in one v one situations these days, and while Kenyon Martin is a good defender, he simply lacks the height to cause Gasol too much trouble.  Defensively, the Lakers face as stern a test as exists in this league, and it is not a test to which they are well suited.  Denver thrives on ball movement and penetration from a slew of quick guards, and penetration by quick guards is the most common factor in forcing the Laker D to struggle.  Andrew Bynum has made great strides in removing the concern quick guards present, but there are few quicker than Denver's Ty Lawson, so today will be quite the test.

The game is an early one, so the preview will be short.  There are factors in play that lead one to believe a bad loss might be in the cards for the Lakers today, but I've already predicted enough doom and gloom during their amazing post ASG run to have filled up my seasonal quota for being wrong, so instead of using this information to predict the future, I am simply providing it for you to take as is.  In any case, the Lakers have once again been hit with three games in less than four days, having played Dallas in Los Angeles on Thursday (a game which went very late), a game in Utah on Friday, and now a new game back in Los Angeles once again.  The first time this went down, the Lakers clearly lacked the energy to keep up with the Orlando Magic, and it was the beginning of the three game losing streak which marked the last time anybody was concerned about the Lakers.  With the Lakers focused, and with the prize of home court advantage suddenly attainable, I doubt very much that the Lakers will get run out of the building, but it will be interesting to see how much they can dissuade the Nuggets from pushing the pace, because the Lakers would probably prefer a slower paced game.

It's been a long, long time since these two teams faced off in January.  Both teams have gone through a metamorphosis since then, one physical, and the other mental.  And yet, despite all those changes, everything that has made this matchup good and bad, entertaining and disappointing, still remains.  In times past, one could say that these two teams provide the biggest question of "Which version of themselves will show up?" in the league.  For eighteen straight games, the Lakers have removed the need for that question, and so have the Nuggets.  So now we get to answer a new question.  When both teams are at their best, which one comes out on top?

 

Statistic Lakers Nuggets
RECORD 55-20 (3) 46-29 (9)
NET POINTS PER GAME 6.9 (3) 4.8 (7)
PACE 90.5 (21) 95.5 (2)
OFFENSIVE RATING 111.9 (2) 112.4 (1)
Turnover Rate (Off.) 0.122 (2) 0.131 (12)
FTA/FGA (Off.) 0.229 (12) 0.286 (2)
Free-Throw % 78.1 (6) 77.3 (10)
3PT FGA/FGA (Off.) 0.219 (16) 0.259 (7)
3PT% (Off.) 35.6 (15) 38.8 (3)
Effective FG% (Off.) 50.4 (10) 52.6 (1)
True Shooting% (Off.) 54.8 (11) 57.5 (1)
Off Rebounding Rate 0.296 (3) 0.237 (27)
DEFENSIVE RATING 104.3 (6) 107.4 (17)
Turnover Rate (Def.) 0.129 (19) 0.125 (26)
FTA/FGA (Def.) 0.178 (1) 0.224 (12)
3PT FGA/FGA (Def.) 0.247 (27) 0.253 (28)
3PT% (Def.) 33.4 (2) 34.3 (7)
Effective FG% (Def.) 47.8 (5) 50.0 (16)
True Shooting% (Def.) 51.4 (2) 54.1 (15)
Def Rebounding Rate 0.722 (23) 0.756 (4)