The Lakers have held serve on their home floor and now the first round series against the Nuggets will move to a much higher altitude. The Lakers looked dominant in Game 1 and while Game 2 was close, they appeared to always be in control. The Lakers are now 5-1 against the Nuggets this season and seem to have too much star power, particularly the duo of Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant, for the starless Nuggets squad to handle. Now is not the time though for the Lakers to take Denver lightly, because these two teams are more evenly matched than most would seem to believe.
How can a team that has won five of the six match-ups be somewhat evenly matched? First off, the games have been a lot closer than most people have realized. The Game 1 blowout has many believing the Nuggets can't compete against the Lakers, but this game was more of an outlier than anything else. The Lakers won the first game by 15 points, they lost the New Year's Day game by 9, and the other four games all finished within a two possession margin. A few bounces of the ball the other way and the Nuggets could be sporting the better head-to-head record this season.
Second, the Nuggets finished only three games back of the Lakers and actually had a higher point differential, which is usually more predictive of how good a team is than simple win-loss record. The main difference in win-loss records is due to the results of close games. The Lakers won a league-high 10 games (out of 14) by three points or fewer. The Nuggets were a respectable 6-6 in similar situations. It was these handful of games that could have gone either way that resulted in the Lakers finishing slightly ahead of Denver in the standings.
So with all that said, here are 5 things to watch for as the series shifts to Denver (below the jump)
1) Transition Defense
The Denver Nuggets are almost more of a track team than basketball team. They run, run, and run some more. They pounce on any bad shot or turnover and get the ball quickly going the other way. This is the one area where the Lakers are at a huge disadvantage. The Nuggets get out in transition on over 18% of their possessions, good for 3rd in the league. Meanwhile the Lakers had the 3rd worst transition defense in the league. It was the 30 transition points the Nuggets scored in game two that kept it close.
The magic number for the Lakers is 20. Hold the Nuggets to no more than 20 transition points and they won't have much of a chance at beating the Lakers. In the 6 games played so far, the Nuggets non-transition points totals were: 70, 73, 71, 76, 77, 70. You can pencil them in for a non-transition point total in the low to mid 70's. Add in another 20 fast transition points and they should score in the 90-97 point range which won't be enough to beat a Lakers team that has scored 103, 103, and 104 in the last three match-ups.
2) 100 Points (Lawler's Law)
If there is anything in this world that I like less than the Clippers it's the Clippers' announcers, particularly Ralph Lawler. Lawler has his now famous "Lawler's Law" which states that the first team to 100 wins because "it's the law". Unfortunately even a broken clock is right twice a day and so too is Lawler here. The Nuggets have failed to score more than 100 points in any game against the Lakers this season. In the six contests they scored: 88, 89, 89, 97, 99, and 100 (in ascending order). If the Lakers crack the 100 point barrier it should result in a win.
3) The Impact of Ramon Sessions
Keeping in mind the previously mentioned point that the Nuggets haven't scored more than 100 points against the Lakers this season, here is another juicy nugget (no pun intended):
- Lakers Point Totals Pre-Sessions: 89, 99, 89
- Lakers Point Totals With Sessions: 103, 103, 104
Sessions is by no means an all-star caliber point guard but the upgrade from a veteran - whose intangibles could no longer make up for his horrific tangibles - to a player who can create and finish has had a noticeable impact on the Lakers offense. With Sessions at the helm the Lakers have yet to not break 100 points against this Denver squad. Ty Lawson is going to get his points. He is too good and too fast to shut down completely (barring Bynum throwing another block party), but if Sessions can take it to him on the other end then Denver won't be able to stop the Lakers offense.
4) Offensive Rebounding
In addition to transition points, the Nuggets have to hit the offensive glass to win games. Their half-court offense is poor as they don't have a low post threat and little perimeter shooting. They win games via easy transition buckets and maximizing the number of times they can throw the ball in the direction of the basket and hope it goes in. They were quite successful in the first two games, collecting 16 and 19 offensive rebounds. The Lakers have no excuse for giving that many second chances.
It isn't just the bigs though, it is a team-wide lack of focus on the defensive glass. Here are the regular season and playoff defensive rebound rates for the Lakers key players:
- Bynum: 26.1 / 20.8
- Gasol: 21.8 / 16.6
- Barnes: 18.3 / 11.3
- Bryant: 11.8 / 7.1
- Sessions: 11.1 / 4.2
All five guys are showing significant declines in defensive rebounding. This is one reason that Jordan Hill has been such a key contributor. His defensive rebound rate this series is 22.1 (team high) and is identical to his regular season rate as well.
The puzzling part is that it isn't like the Lakers can't keep Denver off the glass. In the first three games this year the Nuggets only collected 18 offensive rebounds in total. They had 8 in the first game and 5 in the second and third. Holding them to fewer than 10 rebounds will make it awfully tough for the Nuggets to get to 100 points.
In fact, let's put transition points and offensive rebounding together. The magic numbers are fewer than 20 transition points and fewer than 10 offensive rebounds for the Nuggets. Let's just set the target at less than 30 combined. In the six previous games the Lakers have held Denver to below 30 in this composite statistic three times. The Nuggets in those three games scored: 88, 89, and 89. The three times the Nuggets broke the 30 in this stat: 97, 99, and 100. (Now I just need a snappy acronym for this stat)
5) Two Point Guard Line-ups
Denver likes to go small and play Ty Lawson and Andre Miller in the back-court together. It has been their third most effective two-man combination this year as they are +147 with these two guys on the court. That type of success has continued into this series. The duo of Lawson and Miller have played 31 minutes together in the first two games and during that span the Nuggets are +5. During the other 65 minutes of action the Nuggets were a -24. Look for Denver to continue to go to this two point guard line-up.
The key for Mike Brown is to not try and match it. It may be tempting to put Sessions and Blake on the floor with Kobe at the three to create space for Bynum to operate in the post, but it hasn't been successful so far. In the 20 minutes where Sessions and Blake were both in the backcourt, the Lakers were outscored by 3 points. The Lakers are +22 for the rest of the games. Brown should stick with a traditional line-up and use the extra size to keep Denver off the glass.
Those are five things to watch for as this series continues. While these two teams are more evenly matched than most think, there are far more positives for the Lakers than the Nuggets. The Nuggets do not appear to have any answers for Bryant and Bynum. The acquisition of Sessions has now made it very difficult to keep the Lakers below 100 points, a point plateau that the Nuggets offense can't seem to break.
Meanwhile, the only areas where the Nuggets have had success are two areas that can be easily addressed by just focusing in on the task at hand. They are also areas where the Lakers have shut down Denver in prior games showing it can be done. On offense, the Lakers must keep the floor balanced when a shot goes up (this by the way was one of the best parts about the triangle offense). If I were Brown, I would go so far as to tell every wing player that they are not to pursue the offensive glass. Let Bynum, Gasol, and Hill do the dirty work. If the Lakers hold Denver to 10 transition points, they will struggle to break 90 against the Lakers in a half court set. The Lakers don't need the extra couple possessions that the wing players generate from the occasional offensive rebound.
Defensively it should be the opposite. I would send all five Lakers to the glass defensively. Everyone, even the point guards, need to find a body and box out. The Nuggets aren't a good shooting team. Don't let them make up for their poor accuracy through sheer volume. If the Lakers stay focused and execute in these key areas, they should be able to put away the Nuggets.