The Denver Nuggets outplayed the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night. Denver pulled down 20 offensive rebounds and feasted on second chance points and the Lakers were victims to 10 steals from the Nuggets. Kenneth Faried was everywhere and ended the night with 21 points, 15 rebounds, and 1 ejected Dwight Howard. Corey Brewer tied a career high 27 points as he went 6-7 from long range and punished the Lakers at every opportunity. The Lakers gave up an atrocious 126 points in four quarters, with 69 of them coming in the second half alone.
The Lakers momentum is now, indeed, at rest.
Despite a great night from Kobe Bryant the Lakers couldn't put it all together in Denver. His 40 points on 13-24 shooting along with 4 rebounds and 6 assists were wasted with the performance from the Lakers as a whole. Steve Nash had his minutes monitored a bit closer than we've seen from Mike D'Antoni in his first back-to-back since returning as he "only" put in 30 minutes on the floor (and every excruciating moment without Nash was felt). Pau Gasol had an overall solid game with 19 points on 7-11 (and a pair of 3 pointers that were downright shocking), 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. Still the Lakers lost 126-114 and may now face the Portland Trailblazers without their franchise center. Alas, let's go about this a little different today.
Is for Dwight Howard, the man where the Lakers defense is supposed to begin and end. Howard looked awful in this game, moving as agile as Pau Gasol when he had tendinitis in both of his knees if he also had a severe case of cementitis in both of his shoes. His defensive rotations were either late or non-existent, his decision making was poor, his activity level was awful, and his ejection after bringing his hands down onto Kenneth Faried's face was this game in nutshell. This was the "not supposed to be back until January" Dwight Howard that leaves the "oh my god look at Dwight work in the paint on both ends" Dwight Howard at home sporadically. Or, perhaps, he spent too much time after the Christmas game ghost-hunting.
Whatever it is it showed itself once again tonight. Eventually Howard gave in to the frustration of being out played by the Denver bigs and found himself ejected. Now, Howard's status will be in the air for Friday night's game against the Portland Trailblazers. He has shown the defensive dominance in games, and in stretches, but it's still a work in progress along with his health overall. The Lakers showed the many problems they still have as a team against the Nuggets and Dwight's inconsistent play made the list.
Is for effort. The Lakers simply didn't play with enough effort to beat a Nuggets team that had only one loss at home going into the game. Giving up 20 offense rebounds and allowing 10 steals are the box score stats that show just how outmatched the Lakers were in the effort department. The defensive effort, though, was most jarring. Giving up 126 points isn't what a championship contender does, and while Dwight being ejected didn't help their cause, he wasn't playing particularly effective when he was still "active" for the night.
The Lakers have been falling behind in games and finding ways to sneak back in and come away with victories. There were many runs and close calls with Denver but each and every time the Nuggets came back with another big play to put the Lakers back to rest. With each build-up of momentum came another set of second chance points for the Nuggets, another Corey Brewer three, or another miscue on the offensive end leading to a miscue on the defensive end. Effort is something the Lakers lacked Wednesday night that the Nuggets had a plethora of. Sharing is caring, Denver.
Is for frustration. With the failure to communicate and grow defensively the frustration certainly began to boil for the Lakers. So far, in fact, that Howard and Nash quarreled after the two failed to properly rotate in the pick and roll. After the game Nash called it a "good thing" and claimed guys should be frustrated when they're getting scored on at will, but frustration without proper funneling and follow-up is certainly not a good thing.
All the frustration in the world doesn't make W's appear in that column that is now outweighed by the L's once again.
It wasn't just Nash and Howard causing frustration defensively, as just about every Laker had a handful of "are you serious" moments. Kobe Bryant, for as efficient his game was offensively, still doesn't exert that kind of energy on the defensive side of the ball. No matter who the point guard was, or big rotating was, the Nuggets roasted the Lakers in the pick and roll. The Nuggets pushed the temp in transition, moved the ball, and took clear advantage of the extra possessions they were given by L.A. This was a frustrating game if only because each and every time the Lakers looked to make a move to take the game over they were swiftly kicked back down to the ground because of a defensive failure.
Is for energy off the bench. Jordan Hill once again found his number called by his "arch-nemesis" Mike D'Antoni. In 13:19 worth of playing time Hill had 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 1 assist for the Lakers. Unlike the two starting big men for the Lakers he was moving around the court swiftly, jumping up as if he were spring loaded for rebounds, and displayed the same kind of mettle that Metta World Peace shows on a routine basis. The big man rotation is far from figured out by D'Antoni but this performance from Hill highlights something deeper than the Lakers needing to play this power forward / center with more regularity.
The Lakers need to play their best talent on a routine basis and not bury it on the bench.
What does that mean? Well, if Jordan Hill isn't going to get his fair share of minutes it's a complete waste of talent collecting dust on the bench. The Lakers desperately need a player who can contribute at the same levels that Hill can, but he continues to see limited minutes, even with Dwight Howard ejected. Whether it's a rotation preference, or player preference, D'Antoni isn't getting his best bench talent enough minutes on the floor. If it isn't a backup big that D'Antoni is willing to give extra minutes off the bench to then there are certainly two other areas the Lakers could use that level of talent.
Is for Nash; Steve Nash. While he was hyper-efficient in this game, at one point a perfect 6-6 from the field, after Howard was sent home early for misbehaving the Lakers offense strayed away from all those "pretty" sets they had been running in the prior two games. Without Howard to pair with Gasol, there was a noticeable absence of the horns sets they would run to create easy buckets when they needed them. This clearly isn't entirely on Steve Nash by any means, and looking at a Lakers offense that put up 114 points it may seem senseless to go after their choices with the offense, but if defense becomes a non-factor then putting together the best offensive possession each time down the court is paramount.
With a team like the Denver Nuggets that wanted to push the pace against an old Lakers squad the purple and gold needed a handful of quality possessions to put them over the top; the same quality possessions that helped get them wins against the Warriors and Knicks. They didn't happen against the Nuggets and those rebounded missed field goals, turnovers, and poor possessions turned into opportunities for the Nuggets to score on a Lakers defense that stayed home for Christmas. This is where Steve Nash is so valuable and was underutilized in this game. Dwight being ejected certainly altered what the offense was prepared for, however. in just their third game with the Nash/D'Antoni combo at work. Also, as mentioned earlier the lighter minute load (30:58) exposed the Lakers glaring weakness at backup point guard as Chris Duhon provided next to nothing in this game.
Is for stops. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a noticeable lack of stops necessary to win a game like this. No matter how many times the Lakers came within striking distance the Nuggets had an answer on the other end. The Lakers defense isn't going to play a flawless game for 48 minutes but they need to be able to dig in and create critical stops to capitalize on their offensive prowess. Without Dwight Howard (and with him, for that matter) the Nuggets attacked the rim something fierce. Partner that with the second chance points the Lakers gave up and the transformation of Corey Brewer into a scoring behemoth and the Lakers quickly found the 2 point deficit pushed back to double digits every time they mounted a comeback.
This is a league where you need to be able to get stops. Every night is a challenge in the NBA and this has been a humbling lesson for a team touting (finally) Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Kobe Bryant. No matter the talent there needs to be crisp execution on both ends of the floor. The Lakers did enough offensively to win this game but their inability to make plays on the defensive side of the ball was too much to overcome.
Is for exhaustion. In the latter half of their Christmas back-to-back the Lakers looked exhausted in Denver as many teams do. Arguably a "schedule loss", it was still disheartening to see the Lakers pushed face first into the mud they were stuck in Wednesday night. With a five-game winning streak behind them, a sixth win on this back-to-back would have been just as big as the prior two statement wins, but alas all good things must come to an end. With the energy spent against the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks the tank was on E for the Lakers and even still they were close to sputtering across the line to pick up the win. It's not surprising to see Dwight Howard playing like a Ford Expedition that had it's fuel tank filled with soap bubbles in this particular back-to-back. It wasn't just one particular player, though, it was the team as a whole. The Nuggets beat them in transition and in the half court and reminded the Lakers (not that they needed it) of the dangers that come with travelling to Denver.
Now, the Lakers fall back under .500 with a 14-15 record. Their next game is in Los Angeles as they take on the Portland Trailblazers. Their next four games will be played in Staples (one of which is considered an "away" game against the Clippers) which should provide plenty of opportunity for these exhausted Lakers to recuperate and get back up on the horse they were just launched off of.
Tough loss against a Denver team that came ready to play (out of their minds). Just as a win is a win is a win; a loss is a loss is a loss. The Lakers must put it behind them and focus on going forward. There's still a long road to travel in this 82 game season but somewhere along the way they'll need to find their defensive identity. The offense is well on it's way.
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- Corey Brewer is still making threes over at the Denver Stiffs blog