The Los Angeles Lakers playoff journey takes a turn up to the Rocky Mountains tonight, as the team heads up to Denver to face the Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference first round. The Lakers lead 2-0 in this best of 7 series, winning the first two contests in Los Angeles behind the brilliance of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and the underrated performance of Pau Gasol. The tale of Game 1 was undoubtedly Bynum's triple double, as Drew's emphatic blocks essentially shut down the highest scoring team in the Association. Game 2 was a much different story; the unusually listless Nuggets rediscovered their offensive motor, coming out with much more energy than their playoff-opening contest. Even in a losing effort, Denver built some momentum going back home for Game 3.
Looking at the box score for Tuesday's matchup, the primary separation between the two teams was a dominant night from the Mamba (38 points) and a massive 27/9 from Bynum. Denver basically battled LA to a standstill, out-rebounding them by 4, outscoring the bench by 27 (!) and shooting nearly equal to them in field goal %, 3-point % and free-throw %. After getting defensively railed in Game 1, the Nuggets showed flashes of their usual run-and-gun attack, led by Ty Lawson's 25 point, 7 assist outburst.
The Nuggets proved that despite being down 2-0, they have no desire to reserve tee-times as soon as Monday morning. There's a lot of fight left in a Denver squad being largely left for dead by every sports writer in the country, and humble bloggers like me at MAMBINO HQ.
Denver's keys to victory in Game 3 are pretty simple: they have to play with the same type of energy and scrap they played with in the Game 2, but someone, anyone, has to hit an outside shot. The Nuggets are shooting an amazing 8 for 33 on 3-pointers, which is even more impressive if you were to see how many of them were wide-open shots. Outside of Corey Brewer, Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington, no Denver player has hit a 3 in the past two games, a group that surprisingly includes Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson.
Going back to their home court and with fans that have seen the Lakers bounce their team twice in the last six years, I'd expect the Nuggets to come out fast and furious and try to punch the Lakers in the jaw right out of the gate, Walker, Texas Ranger-style. Even though the advantage might be somewhat overstated, the Nuggs will get a boost feeling that they'll be able acclimate to the altitude faster than their sea-level opponents. From there, they'll need to attack the basket like they did in Game 2 (60 points in the paint), and combine that with the same tenacious rebounding and better perimeter shooting (because, how much worse can it get?).
For the Lakers, they keys here are taking care of the ball, executing in the half-court set, and weathering Denver's scoring runs. All of those facets of the game are tied to each other, in that the Nuggets won't be able to get out in transition as long as LA limits turnovers and executes efficiently in a post-based offense. Also of tantamount importance is sticking to Denver's perimeter shooters. The Lakers have largely gotten lucky that Denver has been throwing up wild, wide-open rocks like they're doing a 5-man re-enactment of the opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Show must do a better job of breaking off screens and getting back on rotations.
It's a pretty simple concept for the Lakers. They know that they're better than the Nuggets and all they have to do to is play slow, steady and up to their potential. However, as we've seen with this team, they often play down to their competition, especially on the road, and especially after a hot streak of games. I can't believe that Denver, at home, will continue to shoot so poorly, and as fast as the team has seemed in Game 2, I think the home crowd will shift Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington into another gear entirely. This is a MUCH more pivotal game for the Nuggs, and they know it. A loss means they're as good as dead in the 2012 playoffs, but a win would give them the confidence to send this thing back to LA for at least one more game. I'm pessimistic about the Lakers' chances tonight, but with Bynum starting to break out his inner Kobe, anything is possible.