Regular Season Standings: LA 57-25, Denver 50-32
Regular Season Matchups: LA 3-0 Denver. The Lakers won the first by 28, the second by 4, and the third by 17. All three games were before Gasol. The four point defeat came early in the season, Bynum was still coming off the bench and he had a woeful game. Iverson on the other hand had a 51 point outburst until Kobe put the clamps on him late, pulling out the victory in the process. Since there’s no Gasol there’s not a lot we can learn from the individual matchups. There is however a great deal we know about Denver.
Injury Report: Bynum still out. Unsure of return.
I’ve said it since the start of the season, and kept the opinion throughout the season, Denver are good enough to knock any team off in the playoffs but not good enough to do it four times. They can beat a championship team, but they won’t repeat the feat.
The Nuggets are a disjointed side. There is no cohesion or fluidity to their play. It’s called a clear out, isolation plays, one-on-one basketball. That’s all they know how to do.
This team has looked desperate in the absence of Steve Blake. He was a true point guard, a good floor general who kept the ball moving. A player who rewarded the big men’s defensive efforts. Who made sure everyone was involved. Who made sure Carmelo and Iverson got the ball in the easiest spots for them create a basket. He was also a marksman, a very good perimeter shooter. Both have been sorely missed throughout the season. Anthony Carter has done a terrific job but he simply isn’t talented enough to hold this role. The Nuggets are too flawed to get away with not having a true floor general. It’s killed their season. The loss of Steve Blake killed their season. Heck anytime you say you lost your season because Steve Blake left you know you have terrible chemistry, a flawed roster, and an incompetent GM because he couldn’t replace a Steve Blake despite having a whole summer to get the job done. But that’s what happened. I thought it would back when he signed with Portland, that everyone would underestimate how much he meant to that team and in doing so they wouldn’t replace him.
Much has been commented about the Nugget’s defense this season. It’s ranked in top 10 in defensive efficiency throughout the year, spending most of the season between 5th-7th. Well their defense tailed off towards the end of the season something awful. It was tragic to watch this team in April, they played zero defense. The Nuggets have always been a poor perimeter defensive team. Iverson is a poor defender with the attention span of a goldfish, he may be able to play the passing lanes but he loses more points than he gains because he regularly loses all idea of where his man has gone. He just turns his head and forgets about his man. Nice. It’s not like he’s top one-on-one defender either (remember he’s leading the team in minutes too). Anthony Carter does a credible job but he isn’t good enough to limit all the top point guards that live out in the West. Over the last few weeks Carmelo Anthony has become their best perimeter defender. Yeah, that’s how bad it’s gotten. In fairness to Melo he has made strides defensively, he’s now just about mediocre. But it’s nice to see him make the effort. The only reason Denver has been a respectable defensive squad is their interior D. Camby is an above average defender and an excellent help defender (although nowhere near being a defensive player of the year, that was a joke). Kenyon Martin is a very tough one-on-one defender at power forward who plays quality help defense. Nene is their best interior one-on-one defender. At 6-11, 250lbs, and with considerable quickness, he’s got the size and athleticism to cause anyone problems. Unfortunately he’s had health problems, so we wish him well and hope he continues his return to action. Nene has returned recently but hasn’t played much. The Nuggets desperately need his heft. Like I said, he’s their best one-on-one defender and he’d be a huge help against Pau Gasol (he’s more suited to the Tim Duncans, Carlos Boozers, physical powerful post players). George Karl has always liked his team to trap the ball, and the Nuggets do this very well ranking 6th in turnovers forced. They also give away very few fouls, ranking fifth for free throws conceded. Unfortunately they don’t take care of their defensive backboards ranking only 22nd. For a team with Marcus Camby; two quality bigs in Nene/Kenyon, Najera, Carmelo, Kleiza, this is simply unnacceptable and it’s putting a serious hurting on the team. The Nuggets weak perimeter defense will always stop them from getting key defensive stops down the stretch, and will always force them into giving up high percentage looks at the rim.
Offensively is the disaster zone. We’ve already gone through the mess at point guard but let’s go little bit deeper. We’ve already mentioned their propensity for one-on-one play. But I want to talk about the starting unit and their recent struggles to begin games. Carmelo Anthony (25.7ppg) and Allen Iverson (26.4ppg) are great scorers but they’re getting no help from anyone else. Camby is averaging only 9ppg which is his lowest in four years and only 7ppg during those key must win games in April. Kenyon Martin is only giving them 12 a night, a far cry from the 17ppg he scored as go-to scorer for New Jersey. He’s only given them 11 here in April. Anthony Carter only gets you 8ppg. Basically what we’ve seen in April is the team stand around and watch Melo and Iverson attack. None of the others have involved themselves, they’ve all spaced the floor and gotten out of the way. The result has been catastrophic for Denver, remember this is a team with bad ball movement already and this has put them over the edge. A bunch of times it’s caused Denver to start the game against big deficits. It’s because the other three defenders are loading up on Melo and Iverson, nobody else is attacking so the defenders have the freedom to get after it. The only times they don’t end up down is when Melo or Iverson put on a show. Denver’s supporting cast has to up their play.
Denver have two great game changing offensive players coming off their bench in JR Smith and Linas Kleiza. Both players are hugely important for giving Denver a scoring burst, for pushing the tempo, and for giving Iverson and Carmelo a rest. I’d love to see one of them in the game at all times next to the high scoring duo, they need the extra scorer to keep the opposing defense honest. When you play JR Smith you just have to accept some off his madness, those ill-advised shots, and remember he’s doing more good than harm out there. JR has been the spark to light Denver’s offense in it’s recent bigs wins, he’s a player to watch. Najera is a very important bench player also, but for different reasons. He’s all energy, all hustle, defense and wierd shots. Karl calls him his ‘zone leader’ on defense, so look for them to go zone more often when he’s the game. Karl has used a lot of zone lately and I expect that to continue.
Denver have no real advantages against LA. Fish will do a decent job on Iverson, and Kobe can guard him otherwise. LA has a bunch of different defenders to through at Melo throughout the game. But most important they’ll shut down the supporting cast. Denver needs someone to step up for them to have any hope of challenging LA.
The only negative in Tinsletown these days is Andrew Bynum’s continued absence. They can beat Denver without him though so no worries for this series.
The Lakers have the league’s true MVP on their squad. With this type of talent surrounding him, Kobe will find a way to win. He’s just too smart and too talented not to. What can I say about the man? He’s the best perimeter player in basketball (Duncan’s the best, and he’ll be the best until a top player unseats him). A great defender. A great leader. A great scorer, a versatile scorer. A great passer, ballhanlder and playmaker. A great penetrator. Great awareness and understanding of what’s happening around him. Clutch. Great in the open court. Great post game. Great in the halfcourt. Just the total package. A blood thirsty winner.
LA’s greatest strength is their backcourt. Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant are the guiding hands that dictate everything. They set the tone defensively. They provide the leadership. They provide the big baskets. They control the tempo. They make sure everyone is involved and that Gasol and co. are getting shots. They control the game.
Their frontcourt ain’t half bad either. Odom has had his best season since Miami, he’s flourished since Gasol has come on board. No longer laboured down with the burden of being Kobe’s sidekick, Odom has been freed up to contribute how ever he sees fit. This is the best defense I’ve seen Odom play in his entire career. At 6-10, long, quick and active he alters shots, he gets in passing lanes, he can contest shots without ever leaving his feet thus avoiding silly fouls. With Gasol around to give LA a post presence Odom has been allowed to freelance about the court and pick his poison – kill with a shot, a drive, a pass, a jump shot, a post move, attack the offensive glass, get to the free throw line, run the offense at the top of the key, run the offense from the high post. His versatility causes havoc for the opposing defense. It’s a beautiful sight to see the Triangle in full motion with Odom and Gasol on either block. Both are such talented passers, such versatile scorers and very intelligent. The rhythm of the offense, the passing, the movement. Okay I’m gushing again. It’s truly beautiful. Gasol has been a huge addition to LA. The Lakers weren’t going to be a true contender until they added an established second scorer next to Kobe Bryant. Kobe couldn’t do it all by himself, Odom wasn’t up to the job and Bynum wasn’t ready. Gasol is. He’s a great scorer. One of only 5 players to score 10ppg in the paint. Bynum is another, when they get him healthy that’s going to be one heck of a combination. Gasol has been the perfect fit for the Triangle and that’s the reason for his smooth acclimation to the Lakers. The Lakers frontcourt does have one weakness though and that’s Bynum’s absence. They lack a toughness down low. A top rebounder who’s going to pull down those contested rebounds in heavy traffic. Someone who’ll defend the Tim Duncan’s and Shaquille O Neal. Someone with more heft and strength. Until Bynum comes back to provide that the Lakers defense and interior is going to be vulnerable.
The Lakers have a great bench, one of the best in the league. It’s versatile, athletic and talented. They’re led by a talented young point guard Jordan Farmar. He’s their floor general, their most creative player, and their best scorer. Vujacic is a 6-5 guard who can play all three perimeter positions. He’s a lockdown shooter and excellent pressure defender. He’ll be spending time on Allen Iverson. Luke Walton is a utility player, at 6-8 he’s the perfect combo-forward. His versatility (great passer, clever, moves well without the ball, can shoot, can post, solid D, rebounds well) allows him to plug any hole LA need plugging. Radmanovic is currently starting with Bynum out, he’s a scorer and a good shooter. He can score every way under the sun, he has unlimited range, a post game, at 6-10 he can drive with either hand, has a midrange game and can finish at the rim. The rest of his game is inconsistent. When he’s on lookout because he’s a capable of turning a game. Trevor Ariza has recently begun to return from injury, I doubt he’ll play in the playoffs but he’s an excellent young defender, a top athlete and moves brilliantly without the basketball. Ronny Turiaf is the heart and soul of the Lakers bench. He provides toughness and energy. He can do a little bit of everything and prides himself on being able to do whatever is asked of him. He’s LA’s best interior presence off the bench. I’m starting to doubt it’ll happen, but one of these I’d like him to figure out how good he is. I join Kobe in his disapproving looks whenever Turiaf passes up a shot. He’s got a nice offensive game and he needs to use it more often. Chris Mihm is the backup centre and he’s capable. DJ Mbenga hopefully won’t play. He’s 7 feet, not much else. Nice guy though. LA signed Ira Newble near the end of the season, presumably to replace Ariza. He’s a similar player to Ariza and can help LA. The Laker bench has ranked in top 5 in scoring, rebounding, assists and FG% throughout the year. They’re very talented and can win games.
There’s nothing that really stands out for LA against Denver. Like I said at the top, it’s difficult to judge the two sides as a matchup because they haven’t played since Gasol arrived.
They just have to show up and play their game. Kobe is the biggest advantage on the court. Gasol the next. Everybody else just stick your role.
LA in 5 or 6. The Nuggets are capable of springing an upset but it would surprise me. LA are a class side and Denver are playing mediocre basketball. It’s hard for a group of individuals to beat a team, that’s why they lose.