The penultimate enemy…
…is those silly Denver Nuggets, or as they have become known in recent years, the Thuggets. They lead the league in tattoos and anti-social behavior. This is a team that has had no real success since their ABA days, in fact this is their first conference finals since 1985, a year we remember fondly.
This is also the first year they have gotten out of the first round in a long time, so they are understandably going nuts up there. And with good reason: this is a quality basketball team, or at least is has been since about the beginning of March. They are very athletic, have started to defend with vigor and play unselfish basketball, and have a huge home court advantage.
Some analysts are picking them to win the series, and pretty much everybody expects a long series, so don’t let that 10-1 head to head record over the last two years fool you, they are a much different team now. The Lakers need to bring the effort every game, not just when people are writing and saying bad things about them. In particular in game 1, as the short turnaround has left the Lakers with no time to prepare while the Nugs have been scouting and practicing for the Lakers for almost a week now.
Chauncey Billups runs the show, and he is a different style point guard than the previous two rounds. He is not looking to beat you with penetration, he is looking to take you to the blocks and punish you or beat you with outside shooting. You can’t go under the screen on him or he will burn you. Fisher is a good match for his strength, and Brown should get the backup minutes matched up with Billups as Farmar is not really strong enough to deal with him. Both need o make him pay if he tries to leave them to double Kobe or the bigs.
The wings present difficult matchups for each team. Dhanty Jones is a pretty good defender, but he’s a huge step down from what Kobe saw the last series and is not much of an offensive threat either which will allow Kobe to roam on defense as he so loves to do. Martin is a great defender who will guard Kobe in key stretches, especially late in games, but he can’t do it all game without getting into foul trouble, so they will just have to double Kobe at times and live with him scoring. Smith will also get turns on Kobe and occupy him on defense. A key will be how often Kobe can get to the line.
Similarly, Carmelo presents a huge challenge for the Lakers. Ariza will get first shot at him, and how well he is able to overcome his strength disadvantage will be key. Walton will also get some shots, trading quickness for strength and giving him another look. And Kobe will get shots at him late in games. He is going to get his, the key is to force him to shoot contested outside shots and keep him off the line, in short make him inefficient.
Ariza can also help out by trying to beat Carmelo down the court in transition, giving him something else to think about, and hitting some 3’s if Carmelo tries to help too much.
The frontcourt is where this will really get interesting, and it starts with Bynum. If he can be effective, Denver has serious matchup problems, if he is not things swing their way some.
Bynum is just too big for Nene, his length causing the Brazilian trouble on both ends. And it causes Martin to have to guard Pau, again a big length disadvantage. Nene matches up much better with Pau and KMart plays Odom well, so Bynum being able to give us good minutes and avoid foul trouble is vital, Denver has no answer for him. We have the personnel to get them in foul trouble up front, and how that plays out may be the biggest key to this series.
Their bench brings two guys who can have an impact: Smith and Anderson. Sasha will be important on JR; he can hit shots from anywhere, out to around 30 feet, you just have to stay attached to him and not let him get off as he is a very streaky player.
Birdman will do what he does, give lots of weak side help, block shots and get putbacks on the other end. He can be foul-prone, and while he has the tools to guard Pau the Spaniard should be able to induce him to commit some fouls. All of our frontcourt guys need to keep a body on him on the other end, he loves to come flying in for putback dunks.
Farmar should be able to have success against Carter in bench matchups, and Sasha could sure help out by hitting a shot every now and then. And Walton’s passing can help cut up their overplaying and overeager defense.
They are now a tough road team, we’re not talking Portland or Utah here where you can just show up and win your home games. They are 2-2 on the road in these playoffs but both losses were in the last possession and they also have a 58 point win to their credit.
And you can bet they will be looking to steal game 1 from a tired and unprepared Laker team. The effort and execution must be there from the opening tip. Beat them tonight and get a lead in game 2 and they might start to remember who they are, or have been. Let them win one and they keep their momentum and confidence.
And they will be very tough on their own court. They have yet to be challenged beyond mid fourth quarter in their home playoff games, and they love to feed on the crowd’s energy and the tin air to get out and run you. Taking care of the ball and executing will be vital in Denver.
The thing we really need to do here is get them to foul us. That will put their bigs in jeopardy and give us free throw advantages. Stay aggressive, take care of the rock, execute, make Billups/Carmelo/JR work and it’s another trip to the Finals.