First Round Preview: L.A. Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets

by April 18, 2008

By: Holly MacKenzie

“Let’s go. This is what it’s all about for me. You can’t draw it up any better,” Iverson said. “People say he’s the best basketball player on the planet, so I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge. Especially with me believing that about myself, so let’s go.

“This is what it’s about. If you’re scared, get a dog.”
-Allen Iverson on a match up with Kobe Bryant

As much as I love Ivy and I respect how he views competition, I think it will be a Kobe Bryant-led squad that crushes his championship dreams once again.

As a reward for locking up the top spot in the West, the Lakers get to face Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. While the Lakers have gone 3-0 against the Nuggets in the season series, the playoffs are a whole different ballgame.

Although people are quick to talk about the effect that the absence of Andrew Bynum will have on the Lakers, in this series, Trevor Ariza’s absence will hurt the Lakers as they try to contain Iverson and Anthony.

While Lakers started the season in disarray and have managed to complete it as one of the top teams in the league, the Nuggets — who had high hopes during training camp — only managed to sneak into the playoffs during the final week of the regular season.

With the teams around them determined to make moves and trade for talent, the Nuggets stayed put. Soon after the Lakers suffered the loss of Bynum, they pulled off the unimaginable and brought in Pau Gasol for spare parts. With rumors swirling about Denver trading for Ron Artest, they stuck with the roster they had. In doing so, they committed to relying on their offense as opposed to strengthening their defense. In this series, they will live and die by that choice.

While the Nuggets have two superstars in Iverson and Anthony and one of the best defenders in the league in Camby, they simply were unable to get it together the way they needed to this season. Yes, the Nuggets have more offensive firepower and they will have their 35-40 point quarters, but in the playoffs, structure and defense pay off. The Lakers have both, the Nuggets do not. Although Los Angeles lost Bynum and Ariza to injury, they have Kobe Bryant, and he has single-handedly made each and every player donning the purple and gold believe that they can — and should — hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the postseason.

Dealing with Iverson and Anthony will be no easy task for the Lakers, but trying to contain Bryant, shutting down Gasol and stopping Odom, in addition to containing bthe strong bench play of the Lakers will be too much for the Nuggets who have survived on their offense alone this season.

“I play for a coach that has nine championships. I’m going to get one before you do.”
-Coby Karl to his father, George Karl.

Beyond the statistics, the Lakers will win this series because Kobe Bryant is not going to let them lose. After thinking he was not going to wear a Laker uniform again during the summer, Bryant now has his entire squad believing that he will take them to the Promised Land. Though a bench led by Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Ronny Turiaf was getting torn up in the media last season, they have emerged as one of the best supporting casts in the entire league.When they come into the game, they not only sustain the lead, but also find a way to extend it and bring energy while Gasol and Bryant are getting breathers.

The young guys are now brimming with confidence and walking with swagger, in short they’ve stolen the Warriors mantra, and they believe.

“My name is Kobe Bryant and I want to win a championship”
-Kobe Bryant, opening day of training camp, August ’07.

The Lakers have the combination of Gasol, who has never before tasted playoff success, with Bryant, who is hungrier and more competitive than any other player in this league (with a nod to Kevin Garnett), one of the best coaches in NBA history, a solid veteran supporting cast in Odom and Derek Fisher and a bench that can hang with anyone. And, oh yes, they also know how to play defense.

It’s going to be fun, but Lakers in six.

Position by Position

Point Guard

Anthony Carter (Den)
7.8 ppg/2.9 reb/5.5 apg/1.5 stl

Derek Fisher (LAL)
11.7 ppg/2.1 reb/2.9 apg/1 stl

Advantage: Lakers

Although Carter has higher assist numbers, Derek Fisher is an integral part of the Laker offense and an offensive threat around the perimeter. He is a solid complimentary guard and can explode for 20-plus on occasion.

Shooting Guard

Allen Iverson (DEN)
26.4 ppg/ 3.0 reb/7.2 apg/2.0 stl

Kobe Bryant (LAL)
28.3 ppg/6.3 reb/5.4 apg/1.8 stl

Advantage: Lakers

While the advantage has to go to the Lakers –Bryant very likely will be crowned MVP this season — former MVP Allen Iverson is right there with him, and has the ability to break the Lakers down, having dropped 51 against them in a December loss.

Small Forward

Carmelo Anthony (DEN)
25.7 ppg/7.4 reb/3.4 apg/1.3 stl

Lamar Odom (LAL)
14.2 ppg/10.6 reb/3.6 apg/1.0 stl

Advantage: Nuggets

Lamar Odom has been playing some of the best basketball of his career since the Pau Gasol trade, but Carmelo Anthony is an offensive explosion waiting to happen. Notably averaging 40.3 points per game on 68.1 percent shooting during a three-game stretch earlier this month, Anthony can put points on the board in a hurry.

Power Forward

Kenyon Martin (DEN)
12.4 ppg/6.5 reb/1.3 apg/1.2 stl

Vladamir Radmanovic (LAL)
8.4 ppg/3.3 reb/1.9 apg/0.7 stl

Although Kenyon Martin is not a huge offensive threat, he will be a tough cover for Radmanovic, who will slide over to the four, leaving Odom to cover Anthony.

Center

Marcus Camby (DEN)
9.1 ppg/13.1 reb/3.3 apg/1.1 stl

Pau Gasol (LAL)
18.8 ppg/7.8 reb/3.5 apg/0.5 stl

Advantage: Lakers

While Marcus Camby is a terrific defender, he is not a huge part of the Nugget offense and will be outscored by Gasol. When Camby does look to score, his points usually come on jump shots. The Lakers will aim to expose the Nugget defense by using drive-and-kicks and forcing Camby to decide whether he will stay home on Gasol or stop penetration.

Laker Strengths:

Kobe Bryant. Effective offense with many weapons. Can play the running game, but have the triangle to fall back on.

Laker Weaknesses:

Poor pick- and-roll defense. Increasingly reliant on the three-point shooting when their other shots are not falling. Lack of ball reversal in the triangle and impatience, leading to a lack of open shots — and shots not falling.

Nuggets Strengths:

Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, each of whom can take over a game on the offensive end. Strong bench play from JR Smith. Host of three-point shooters.

Nuggets Weaknesses:

Lack of offensive balance. Lack of a solid post presence. Not great at controlling the tempo. Expects to win by outscoring and outshooting their opponent.

The Lakers should take this series in six games. They will come out victorious if they:

Defensively:

1- Force Iverson into low-percentage shots and keep him off of the foul line.
2- Control the tempo and win the rebounding battle.
3- Force Carter to be a shooter/scorer, not a facilitator.
4- Allow Anthony to get his points, taking his team out of their rhythm with Iso’s.
5- Shut down JR Smith and Linas Kleiza early. Do not let them find a rhythm. Both are streaky shooters who will hurt you when they heat up.
Offensively:
1-Take advantage of the Gasol/Camby matchup and initiate the Laker offense through Gasol.
2- Take advantage of the size difference between Bryant and his defender, leading to double teams/defensive breakdowns for the Nuggets.
3- Use drive/kick situations that force Camby to rotate off of Gasol/Odom resulting in dunks and open lay ups.
4- Create their own tempo and do not get caught in the three-point barrage.

Denver X-Factor
The biggest x-factor for the Nuggets will be their bench play. They already know they will win or lose the series based on how hot they are offensively. With either Anthony or Iverson guaranteed to get theirs, the Nuggets will need solid play from their guys off of the bench. JR Smith has been that force as of late, coming into the game and providing solid minutes for Denver. He is a player with limitless talent, and range that seems to stretch on forever. The Lakers will need to contain him early if they don’t want to deal with him late. Linas Kleiza also has the potential to do damage offensively, and is averaging 13 points in the three regular- season contests against the Lakers. If Denver wants to win this series, they will need their bench to not only step up big, but outplay the Laker reserves, not an easy task.

Los Angeles X-Factor
Lamar Odom. While everyone in the league knows how much talent Lamar Odom possesses, how unique his skill set is and how tough of a match up he can be, they also know how much he hates the bright lights and pressures of being a go-to guy on the floor. Since the trade for Gasol, Odom has been bumped from the second offensive option to the third/fourth option, and he has responded beautifully. While he has shot 49 percent from the floor in his games without Gasol, when Pau is on the floor Odom’s average jumps to 59 percent Adding an aggressive Lamar Odom to the combo of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will prove deadly for the Nuggets. The question that remains is whether or not Odom will show up to play.

(I vote YES.)

Season Series Breakdown

Game One: November 29th, Denver @ Los Angeles

LA Lakers 127 Denver 99

-Sasha Vujacic scored 19 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers routed the Nuggets and the starters watched from the bench.
-Laker reserves outscored Denver reserves 63-29.
-Denver gives up 46-point fourth quarter to the Lakers with Bryant on the bench.
– Bryant had 24 points and 7 assists, Vujacic had 22 points, Bynum scored 12 points to go with 13 rebounds and Walton had 14 points off of the bench.
-Iverson scored 21 points (8-18 fg), and dished 6 assists for the Nuggets while Anthony finished with 23 points, Camby scored 11 points and grabbed 9 boards and Kleiza had 15 off of the bench.

Game Two: December 5th, Los Angeles @ Denver

LA Lakers 111 Denver 107

-Allen Iverson had 49 points through three quarters before the Lakers shut him down in the fourth.
-Teams were tied at 88 going into the fourth quarter before the Nuggets went cold and Iverson was denied the ball. While Iverson scored only 2 points in the fourth, Bryant had 12, including six straight to give the Lakers a four-point lead with under a minute left to play.
-Iverson was 15-18 from the free throw line.
-Camby had 20 rebounds but was scoreless for the game. Anthony scored 23 points and Najera added 10. Bryant finished with 25 points for the Lakers, Fisher scored 20, Radmanovic had 21 off of the bench and Odom added 17.

Game Three: January 22nd, Denver @ Los Angeles

LA Lakers 116 Denver 99

-Derek Fisher was the player of the game with a season-high 28 points for the Lakers, including shooting 6-7 from the three-point line.
-Story of the game was Anthony who left the game early in the second quarter with an ankle sprain after coming down on Bryant’s foot. Without one of their superstars the Nuggets fell behind and could not keep up with the Lakers.
-Besides Fisher’s 28, Bryant scored 17 points and dished 11 assists, Farmar had 19 off of the bench, Turiaf scored 11 and Odom had 15 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists. Iverson led the Nuggets with 24 points (8-23 fg), Kleiza scored 21 off of the bench, Camby had 18 points and 12 rebounds, Martin scored 16 points to go with 11 rebounds and Carter was scoreless but dished 14 assists. Anthony scored 13 points in his 14 minutes before injuring the ankle.