By John Carroll
The playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets could be the most intriguing of the first round because of the contrast in styles between the two teams. The Lakers are about size and strength and the Nuggets are all about speed. The Lakers' interior offense of Andrew Bynums and Pau Gasol give them a distinct advantage over any other team in the NBA; no one can match the size and strength of the two Lakers big men.
Then after the Lakers pound you inside they have the option of going to the No. 1 closer in the NBA in Kobe Bryant. The Lakers are undefeated this season when Bryant and either Bynum or Gasol combine for over 20 points.
The Denver Nuggets, though, are all about team speed. They lead the league in points in the paint, and shots at the rim without a true post player. Their transition game is a weapon and it is what makes the Nuggets so dangerous. Every time the Lakers score it ignites a fast break for the Nuggets.
Depth will also be a key. When Mike Brown looks down his bench and contemplates what moves to make, he has very few options. He has not settled on a set rotation because of the lack of talent on his bench, and with Metta World Peace suspended for the first six games of this series he has even one fewer option. Brown will be forced to play his top four players -- Bryant, Bynum, Gasol, and Sessions -- heavy minutes but that will be a big problem in this series due to the speed and pace that the Nuggets love to play at. The Lakers have no wiggle room for fatigue, foul problems or injury. The Nuggets, on the other hand, do not have a superstar and they do not have a big dropoff on their roster from one to nine.
This series will be all about who can impose their will on the other.
Los Angeles Lakers' Offense
• The Lakers will attempt to pound the ball inside to Bynum and Gasol early and often. This is their biggest advantage versus the Nuggets and they must take advantage of it from the beginning of Game 1. The Lakers are seventhin the NBA in paint points with 42.6 per game.
• The Lakers must get Bynum engaged early in each game. When he is engaged on the offensive end of the floor they win. They need to get him early touches in direct pos- ups and find out immediately if the Nuggets are going to double or play him one-on-one.
• The Lakers' two big men are excellent playing off of each other. They are skilled big men who can pass, catch, and score. They compliment each other because Gasol can step out from the basket or up to the high post and create room for Bynum to operate in the low post. When Kobe was out late in the season these two big men dominated the offensive touches of the Lakers offense. They need a high number of touches in this series to defeat the Denver Nuggets.
• Shot selection is a major key in this series for the Lakers. They are eighth in the NBA in field goal percentage at 45.7 percent. The quality of the Lakers shots will directly affect the outcome of the game. The better the shots the better chance they have of winning. If they get quality shots from their two big men and Kobe this will limit the Nuggets transition game. However, if they run poor offense and settle for bad shots they will be in big trouble.
• More specifically, Kobe must have discipline and great shot selection throughout the playoffs. He is a career 45.3 percent shooter. But this season with a new coach and new offensive system he shot the lowest percentage (43.0 percent) since he became a Lakers starter in his third season.
• The Lakers will get Kobe the ball several ways. They will get him the ball just off the block in a post/isolation situation or at the top of the key. He does not need a pick or a screen to get a quality shot. He can create his own, elevate into his jump shot and score. He attempted 23 field goal attempts per game and shot only 43.0 percent.
• Lakers cannot get caught up in a running game with the Nuggets. It is not their style. They rank 29th in the league in fast-break points with 9.4 per game
• The Lakers are a poor 3-point shooting team (32.5 percent). This may lead the Nuggets to double either the post or Kobe on the catch without regard to getting beat from the perimeter. Without 3-point shooters to space the court the Lakers are vulnerable to double-teams. The Nuggets are a poor 3-point defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot 38.3 percent from deep, but the Lakers may not be able to take advantage of that.
• The Lakers get to the free throw line 24.1 times per game. This is an important statistic in this series. The more the Lakers get to the line, the more they slow down the pace of the game. It not only gets them easy points but it also allows them to set their defense and limit the Nuggets fast break opportunities.
• The Lakers must crash the glass with only their two big men. They average 12.1 offensive rebounds per game. Bynum, Gasol and Jordan Hill are terrific offensive rebounders. The rest of their players must sprint back in transition defense to negate the Nuggets break.
• Lakers need a big series from Sessions. If he is aggressive in pick-and-rolls and attacking the paint to create shots for himself and others he diversifies their offense and makes them much less predictable.
Denver Nuggets Offense
• The Nuggets offense is very simple to understand. They are No. 1 in the NBA in total points, fast-break points and points in the paint. They put incredible pressure on their opponent’s defense with the pace at which they play. They score 104.1 points per game, they score almost 20 points in transition and they drive the ball into the teeth of the defense and score 53.4 points in the paint.
• The Nuggets get the ball to the rim. They get 21.2 field goals at the rim, the most in the NBA. This statistic alone translates to playoff success. While most teams struggle to score in the playoffs the Nuggets have a weapon that no one else has -- their transition game, which leads to point-blank shots at the rim.
• By playing small and fast the Nuggets can mitigate the superior height of the Lakers. The pace of the Nuggets could force Mike Brown to match the Nuggets' size. George Karl wants them to have to adjust to his club, not him adjusting to the size of the Lakers.
• The Nuggets need a big-time effort on the defensive glass. If they can rebound they can ignite their fast break. If they rebound they can push the pace and beat the Lakers down the court. If they do not rebound the Lakers will minimize the Nuggets' most important advantage in this series: their speed and fast break.
• The Nuggets get quality shots time and time again. They are 2nd in the NBA in field goal percentage at 47.6 percent.
• The Nuggets offensive style is more of an equal opportunity offense. They do not have one player who they will post or isolate. They move the ball, find the open man, make the extra pass and get great shot selection. The Nuggets were No. 1 in the NBA in assists with 24.0 per game. Everyone on the court is a threat to score and it makes it very difficult to lock on to one player. They do not run a high number of set plays thus it is very difficult to prepare for what they might do every trip down the floor.
• Look for the Nuggets to attack the Lakers' big men with a high number of pick-and rolls. They want to get Bynum and Gasol away from the basket and get them moving. They are slow and have problems helping on picks and rotating back inside. Lawson and Miller could have tremendous success coming off picks without anyone showing or hedging. All they have to do at that point is make plays.
• The Nuggets do not have a designated closer. If they get into late game situations they do not have a Kobe or Durant type of player to go get them a shot. They rely on team ball. If they need a basket, George Karl will put the ball in Ty Lawson’s hands and let him make a play.
Ramon Sessions: Sessions was a very good pickup by the Lakers at the trade deadline. He is a playmaker who has the athleticism to penetrate and create shots for himself and his fellow Lakers, and he understands how top keep his big man happy by pounding the ball inside to them. He will be making his playoff debut for the LA Lakers. He must be able to keep Lawson out of the paint during this series. Sessions is the athletic guard that the Lakers were so desperate for, and he has averaged 12.7 points and 6.2 assists in his 23 games in a Lakers uniform. As the facilitator of the LA Lakers offense the pressure will be on Sessions to perform at a very high level in the playoffs.
Ty Lawson: Lawson is the catalyst of the high-powered Nugget offense. He averaged 16.4 points and 6.6 assists this season. He pushes the ball in transition and gets the ball from foul line to foul line with tremendous speed and quickness. He finds seams to attack and can penetrate into the paint in the half court. He has played in 11 playoff games prior to this series scoring 11.4 points and dishing out 3.2 assists per game. He is a bit of a liability on defense and may struggle versus the taller Sessions.
Kobe Bryant: Bryant has played 16 seasons in a Lakers uniform and has won five NBA championships. He put up MVP numbers this season, elevating his scoring numbers to 27.9 points per game. He finished second in scoring in the NBA, finishing just .10 points behind Kevin Durant. He is currently still the most talented player in the NBA and the Nuggets will be hard-pressed to match him defensively. The Nuggets will throw several players at Bryant but they do not have the team defensive concepts to stop him. In 56 career games against the Denver Nuggets he has averaged 25.0 points per game. He is the Lakers' closer and will be called on in the playoffs to make big shots in the final minutes for the Lakers to advance.
Arron Afflalo: Afflalo comes into the playoffs on a roll. He is averaging 18.7 points and shooting 52.1 percent from the field during the month of April. Afflalo is a defensive minded player and although he is not an elite athlete he works hard at that end of the floor. He is a spot up shooter who has shot 39.8 percent from the 3 point line this season. Afflalo will attack off the dribble, and is an opportunistic scorer.
Devin Ebanks: Mike Brown will most likely start Ebanks at the small forward position in place of World Peace. Ebanks has been a solid role player this season who can defend and rebound. Ebanks is a good ball-handler and facilitator. His perimeter shot is suspect and he does not space the court for the Lakers big men. He played in 24 games (12 starts) this season and averaged 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in 16.5 minutes. He has no playoff experience and he may be overwhelmed by the pressure of the playoffs, but the Lakers have very few options.
Danilo Gallinari: Gallinari missed some time with injuries this season and played in only 43 of the 66 regular-season games. The former Knick still averaged 14.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He is a terrific shooter but also has an uncanny knack for driving the ball, drawing contact and getting fouled. He leads the team with 4.9 free throw attempts per game. He is a defensive liability because of his lack of foot speed.
Kenneth Faried: Faried had a very good rookie season in Denver. He averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in 39 starts this season. He is a high-energy player who is a bit undersized but he plays extremely hard and will be assigned to defend Pau Gasol in this series. Faried is a monster on the glass at both ends of the floor. He is a terrific offensive rebounder averaging 3.1 per game. Faried has limited offensive skills but he can finish around the rim on interior passes and stick backs on his offensive rebounds.
Pau Gasol: Gasol has had a very good season for the Lakers, and he enters the playoffs playing very good basketball. Gasol has averaged 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in the last ten games. He played in 65 of the 66 games this season and averaged 17.4 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. In 89 postseason contests he has recorded 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds. Gasol has tremendous footwork in the post, great hands and touch. He works well with Bynum because of skill set. He has the ability to shoot the mid-range jumper and draw opponents away from the rim. As a result Bynum will have room to operate in the post and Bryant will have space to attack the rim.
Andrew Bynum: Bynum stayed healthy this season, and that is a victory due to the fact that had been a struggle in the past. He played in 60 of the Lakers 66 games. Bynum put up career numbers in points 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. The tandem of Bynum and Gasol give the Lakers the best two big man combination in the NBA. He recently had a 30 rebound game In 62 career playoff games, he has posted 8.2 points and 5.9 boards. Bynum was the go to guy in the month of April when Bryant missed games due to injury. He averaged over 20 points a game in March and April. Look for the Lakers to get him deep post touches early in this series to establish his dominance in the paint.
Kosta Koufos: Koufos has been the starting center in 24 of the 48 games he played this season for the Nuggets. He is a skilled big man, but a tad soft. That will not help him in this series when he is matched up with either Bynum or Gasol. Koufos has good size and a nice touch around the basket. He can rebound and block shots, but he is not tough enough to deal with the Lakers big men and will get overwhelmed in this series. He averaged 5.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season.
Los Angeles Lakers Bench
Steve Blake: Blake will come off the bench to spell Sessions at the point guard position. He will distribute the ball and attempt to get it to Kobe and the two Laker big men. He averaged only 3.2 assists per game in limited minutes. He has struggled from the perimeter shooting only 33.3 percent from the 3 point line. The Lakers will have a problem matching up with either Lawson or Miller and therefore Blake’s most important contribution in this series will be at the defensive end of the floor.
Matt Barnes: Barnes was a valuable all-around player for the Lakers this season. He is tough, plays with energy and is a good rebounder for his size. His production has increased over the last 10 games when he averaged 10.1 points and 3.1 assists per game. Barnes is an inconsistent shooter, who shot 33.0 percent from the 3 point line. Barnes improved play comes at a very important time for the Lakers because of the suspension of Metta World Peace.
Jordan Hill: Hill has played limited minutes since his trade to the Lakers. However he has gotten bigger minutes lately and delivered. He came off the bench on April 22nd to score 14 points and collect 15 rebounds. Hill has averaged 16.0 minutes and scored 6.2 points while averaging 5.6 rebounds in the last ten games for the Lakers. Mike Brown may be forced into using the quicker, more athletic Hill in this series versus the smaller and quicker frontline of Denver.
Metta World Peace: As a result of his seven-game suspension, World Peace will miss this series. The Lakers will miss his toughness, and defense. His absence makes a weak Lakers bench just much weaker.
Troy Murphy: Murphy is another guy whose minutes have dropped off. He has struggled all season on the defensive end but can still rebound and knock down open perimeter jump shots.
Josh McRoberts: His minutes have completely dropped off as the season progressed. He is not expected to play much in this series. He can defend, rebound and is an excellent finisher around the rim.
Denver Nuggets Bench
JaVale McGee: McGee may be one of the most important players for the Nuggets in this series. His athleticism and length will be needed to defend Bynum and Gasol. He is a spectacular shot-blocker and will need to protect the rim versus the Lakers' big men. McGee must rebound the ball to ignite the Denver fast break, while attacking the offensive glass. He averaged 2.7 offensive rebounds per game. He runs the floor and can knock down a short range jumper.
Andre Miller: Miller is an experienced and crafty veteran. He has carved out a living in the NBA without elite athleticism. He led the Nuggets in assists this season with 6.7 per game. He struggles to defend quicker point guards. Miller is an excellent rebounding guard averaging 4.0 for his career He has been a below average shooter his entire career, shooting only 20.5 percent from the 3-point line.
Corey Brewer: Brewer is an athletic wing defender that George Karl could put on Bryant at some point in this series. He has a poor offensive skill set, but can make an occasional open shot. He is much better suited to play in this fast, up-tempo style.
Timofey Mozgov: Mozgov could be called upon in this series due to the size of the Lakers. He played 14.8 minutes per game in the four games this season against the Lakers averaging 4.3 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Prediction: Lakers in six.