A Preview of the First Round Playoff Series Between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets

Conceptual Architecture

By Jared Dubin

These teams are more similar than you might imagine at first glance. Stylistic differences aside, both the Lakers and Nuggets sported an above average offense (Denver’s was slightly better this year) and a below average defense (Denver’s was slightly worse) during the regular season. They each played basically average – or below – basketball for three quarters of the game and had one quarter where they simply dominated their competition. Both teams excelled at getting to the free throw line at one end of the court and preventing their opponent from getting there at the other end. Neither team shot very well from beyond the 3-point line.

But while they do have their similarities, the main difference between the Lakers and the Nuggets is one that strikes to the core of their very existence. Los Angeles has the glitz and the glam, the Kobe and the Bynum and the Pau and… not so much beyond that (especially since they’ll be without Metta World Peace, their best perimeter defender, for much of the series). Denver has been lauded across the Internet as a great TEAM (always make sure to use capital letters for emphasis); they spread the ball around, they’re unselfish and they work TOGETHER.

The Nuggets come at you in waves. They push the ball up the court and try to ram it down your throat. They’ll keep throwing different combinations of bodies out there, and one night’s crunch time lineup might bear little or no resemblance to the one they use the next. At different times Ty Lawson or Andre Miller might be running the show, and they might be flanked by any combination of Denver’s plethora of wing players – Arron Afflalo, Corey Brewer, Danilo Gallinari – along with any of their multiple, versatile front court players – Kenneth Faried, Al Harrington, JaVale McGee or Timo Mozgov (though not so much with the Mozgov lately). Their deep bench is their greatest strength, even more so than their strong starting lineup, though the two often feel as if they flow together. It’s a new age basketball team; constantly cutting and always in motion. Pick-and-rolls, getting out in transition and spot-up 3’s. Every piece, every part, matters equally.

The Lakers are more traditionally constructed. They have an alpha dog – Kobe – along with two supporting stars – Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. They have a defensive stopper (Peace, suspended for much of the series) and a point guard who controls the flow of the game and acts as a secondary offensive option – Ramon Sessions. Their bench – Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, Jordan Hill, Troy Murphy, Andrew Goudelock – is really just there to get the starters some rest before they can come back in and resume dominating the touches. The Lakers run through their sets with precision and if they don’t get an open look out of it they ask Kobe to create his own shot off the dribble or they dump it into Bynum or Pau in the post. They isolate their best players in the spots they like the most and try to get the best shot they possibly can out of the possession.

The series itself is a war of contrasting styles. It’s hero ball vs.”You never know who’s going to get the last shot.” It’s Mike Brown’s methodical, slow the game down and out-execute the opposition approach vs. George Karl’s free-wheeling, make order out of the chaos you create paradigm. It’s top heavy vs. balanced. It’s Kobe System vs. TEAM. It’s a battle for basketball’s soul.

The Death of Reason

By Jared Dubin

Is it possible that the Lakers could have the three best players in this series and still lose? Ty Lawson is going to be a problem for the Lakers’ point guards to defend. Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake simply do not have the speed to keep up with him and he should be able to get into the middle of the lane often. Once that happens, Los Angeles’ defense is in trouble. Lawson, despite his small stature, is a good finisher around the basket; he’s able to make shots over, through and around various big men. If the Lakers’ defense collapses on him, he can kick it out to one of the Nuggets’ multiple strong outside shooters, whether it’s Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington or Corey Brewer.

Gallinari, who did not play well in any of the Nuggets-Lakers games this season, should be a pain for Los Angeles as well. Not having Metta World Peace, their best wing defender, to hassle Gallo, get physical with him off the dribble and generally make him work for his points is going to make a suspect defense even more so. If Gallo gets going, the Lakers are in for a long series.

LA’s big advantage over Denver is their size, but if the Nuggets can get either Bynum or Gasol in foul trouble, they can trot out one of their many small ball lineups and try to run the Lakers off the floor. They’ll probably try to do this by repeatedly involving them both in pick-and-rolls. The Lakers struggled mightily to defend pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season, and when they were able to corral the dribbler they often left weak side shooters wide open. Luckily for the Nuggets, this is exactly the kind of thing their offense thrives on. Bynum especially can be taken advantage of in pick-and-roll situations with athletic big men. In Harrington, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, Denver has exactly the kind of guys who can make things difficult for him.

Chemical Reactions Plate Tectonics And You

by Scott Leedy

The initial reaction to the Nuggets-Lakers series might be something like, “That’s an unfortunate draw for the Nuggets; they are going to get killed on the inside.” While this may certainly be the way the series plays out, the Nuggets were actually very good defending in post-up situations – allowing a PPP of 0.78, good for the 3rd best in the league as Sebastian Pruiti noted yesterday over in his preview at Grantland. Looking at the individual match-up of Gasol and Bynum versus the Nuggets this year might give us a clearer picture. Interestingly enough, in 4 games against the Nuggets this year, both Gasol and Bynum posted lower offensive efficiency numbers than normal while still both posting very good TS% (59.4 for Gasol, 66.6 for Bynum). I am more apt to put stock in the true shooting numbers, as the offensive efficiency numbers seems are likely too team-dependent to mean as much. Also worth noting is that both Gasol and Bynum posted individual defensive numbers that were significantly better than their yearly average. This suggests that the Nuggets might have even more difficulty scoring over the Lakers’ size then they will trying to shut down Gasol and Bynum on the other end.

Another issue for the Nuggets is obviously defending Kobe Bryant. The Nuggets retain a trio of very good perimeter defenders in Brewer, Gallo (0.66 PPP allowed in isolation) and Afflalo (though to a lesser extent this year) that will likely be able to contain Bryant fairly well. Bryant posted a negative net efficiency in his games against the Nuggets and posted an offensive efficiency nearly 9 points lower than his yearly average. Perhaps even more indicative of Kobe’s struggles against the Nuggets is his abysmal 34.6 TS%. While it is unlikely that Kobe will shoot this poorly over the entire series, it does appear as though the Nuggets have the personnel and a defensive strategy capable of bothering Bryant, and neutralizing his offensive abilities as much as possible.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Nuggets will no doubt look to attack the Lakers by pushing the pace. The Lakers allowed 1.18 PPP in transition which ranked 27th in the league. In the half court, the Lakers post generally good, but not great numbers in every area. The Nuggets will need to rely most heavily on the skills of Ty Lawson, who’s gifted both in direct drives off the dribble and in using pick and rolls to score and set up his teammates. In the match-ups against the Lakers this year, Lawson has generally struggled on offense – posting a TS% of 47.5 in four games. In order for the Nuggets to have a chance he has to find away to get into the lane and finish amongst the trees or find open cutters and shooters for easy points.

The other player that will be of great import for the Nuggets is Danilo Gallinari. While Gallinari struggled mightily against the Lakers this year – posting a very poor TS% of 38.0 in their four match-ups – the Lakers will be without their best perimeter defender in Ron Artest for most of, if not all of this series. Unfortunately for Nuggets fans, ever since his return form injury Gallo has looked slower and has been unable to drive past anyone. Gallo needs to regain his speed and aggressiveness in order for the Nuggets to have any chance at stealing this series for the Lakers.

Ultimately, the Lakers’ chances in both this series and the playoffs in general will hinge upon the play of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. If Pau mysteriously disappears like he did last year the Lakers, could be upset at any point. However, if both Gasol and Bynum play focused, aggressive and smart basketball the Nuggets will have very little chance at extending this series beyond even 5 games.

As If We Knew

by Sean Highkin

  • Kobe Bryant will score 40 points twice during this series. He will take at least 70 shots in those two games.
  • The Nuggets will steal one of the first two games at Staples, and it will largely be seen as Pau Gasol’s fault. This will kick the tires on the same Gasol-disappearing-in-the-playoffs narrative that prevailed last spring. Gasol will respond to this by dominating at least one subsequent game, likely more.
  • Danilo Gallinari will take advantage of the absence of Metta World Peace and break out of his slump against the Lakers to have a monster series.
  • Prediction: Ultimately, the Bynum-Gasol front line will be too much for the Nuggets to handle. The Lakers will win in six.

Jared Dubin

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He is the co-editor in chief of Hardwood Paroxysm and the HPBasketball Network.