Championship teams find ways to win games in which they do not play their best. Looking mentally and physically drained from their second-round series against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers survived Tuesday on timely 3-point shooting and domination of the boards. This kept them close enough to give Kobe Bryant a chance to will them to a Game 1 win. With a dozen missed free throws and poor execution in the final minutes, the Nuggets know this was one that got away.
One of coach George Karl's biggest concerns coming into the series was the offensive struggles of Carmelo Anthony against the Lakers in the regular season. But Anthony put those concerns to rest, exploding for 39 points on 14-of-20 shooting in Game 1. Part of this was due to the Nuggets' offensive attack, which deliberately and strategically moved Anthony all over the floor to prevent the Lakers from loading up their help on one side of the court. Rather than his typical elbow, wing and post extended areas of attack, Anthony got many of his catches at the top of the floor, in transition and even on ball reversal. This negated the Lakers' trapping and flooding tactics, leaving them often scrambling to find him.
In Game 2, expect Anthony to be on the move again, catching the ball above the top of the key, high on the wings and in the open court on the break. Also, look for Anthony to attack the offensive glass, which he did with ferocity in Game 1. This is an area in which he can get easy scores and free throws, which he will need as the Lakers focus their attention his way in Game 2.
The Nuggets gave L.A. fits with their drag-screen action in Game 1, allowing Chauncey Billups to get a screen at the top in their early offense and attack the Lakers' big men. The weak hedges, switches and mismatches allowed for open, uncontested shots for Billups and easy rolls to the basket after the screen for Kenyon Martin and Nene. Look for increased drag-screening emphasis in Game 2, especially with Andrew Bynum on the floor for the Lakers.
Transition offense, with Nene running the floor, will be a continued focus for the Nuggets in Game 2. He can outrun both Bynum and Pau Gasol, and he was responsible for many of Denver's easy baskets in the first half. If he can stay out of foul trouble in Game 2, he will continue to have a speed advantage not only in the open floor but also as the roll man in perimeter ball-screen action.
Defensively in Game 2, the Nuggets must first shore up their defensive boards; they allowed 17 offensive rebounds, which bailed the Lakers out of a lot of bad offensive possessions. Those rebounds kept the Lakers close in a game in which their offense was not very sharp, and this negated a solid defensive effort by the Nuggets on Bryant and Gasol.
Denver must take a more physical "body on body" approach in Game 2 and must pay special attention to moving Gasol out from in front of the rim. With Denver's big men going for blocked shots, the other Nuggets defenders must hit Gasol early, meeting him further up the lane before he can camp under the basket. Chris Andersen, Nene and Martin also must keep the Lakers' bigs from rebounding their own misses by staying in better position and being selective in their block attempts.
Nuggets defenders actually did an admirable job on Bryant for most of Game 1, as Dahntay Jones and J.R. Smith forced Bryant into jump shots and fadeaways -- which limits Bryant's ability to dominate the game. Jones has mastered the "pull the chair out" move on Bryant -- pulling away from Bryant and forcing him off balance as he tries to back Jones down.
But when Bryant went on the attack in the fourth quarter, Denver's team defense was not up to the task of keeping him away from the rim. The Nuggets' traps and rotations were inconsistent, and with their constant switching, they set themselves up for matchups that negatively affected their ability to make big stops down the stretch.
To help prevent some of these situations in Game 2, denial of passes to Bryant must be more forceful and consistent. Jones and Smith must front Bryant on his flex cuts into the post and deny his first and second cuts as well as any attempt to post. And Denver cannot have the much smaller Anthony Carter as a lone defender on Bryant at crunch time.
The other area of defensive focus for Denver in Game 2 will be on closing harder and faster on the Lakers' corner shooters; L.A. had five bench players make 3-point shots in Game 1. To do this, the Nuggets must get more help from Andersen, Martin and Nene so their perimeter defenders can stay closer to the shooters and shorten the distance to contest the spot-up 3s.
The Lakers were sluggish and slow defensively for much of Game 1. More than anything, their communication and verbal hustle must improve in Game 2. Denver shredded the Lakers with drag screens in the early offense, and the Lakers sometimes switched, sometimes hedged and sometimes didn't know which one they were doing. Having Gasol defend a Billups 3-point shot in the last minute is not the formula for winning this series.
To prevent these mismatches and miscommunications in Game 2, look for the Lakers to force Billups to "turn down" the screen, forcing him to stay on one side of the floor. This simplifies the coverage and keeps Gasol, and especially Bynum, from having to hedge so far out on the floor. It also takes away the easy roll down the lane for the Nuggets' big men.
The Lakers' ball-screen coverage has to be a concern for coach Phil Jackson in Game 2. To prevent Billups from shooting the 3 off the screen or turning the corner, the Lakers often switched this action and got the same mismatches and miscommunication they got on the drag-screen action. Look for the Lakers to flatten out the coverage of the ball screen in Game 2, which will allow the big man to stretch Billups' dribble, which gets Billups' defender back to him at a less-threatening attack angle. This also prevents a full switch, which exposes mismatches at both positions.
Locating Anthony in transition also will be a focus for the Lakers' defense in Game 2. Anthony got wide-open looks when defenders failed to communicate or two Lakers picked up the ball and allowed Anthony to roam free. L.A. must identify Anthony quickly when he is running the floor without the ball and not stray too far when the ball goes away, because Anthony is attacking the offensive boards with a vengeance. If Anthony is the ball handler, Trevor Ariza and Luke Walton must retreat and contain between the circles, not attempt to guard him at half court. That became a foul or a bad scene at the rim in Game 1.
Offensively, Bryant bailed out the Lakers on a night when their spacing was tight and their ball movement and cuts were slow. Only the corner 3s and the offensive boards kept them around. With the mental drain of the Houston series now behind them, look for much more precision and efficiency from the Lakers' half-court attack in Game 2. Also expect more high-low action between Gasol and Bynum, who can bury their defenders under the rim with a deep seal or step up the lane to call for the lob on the smaller Nuggets defenders on the high-post flash.
Although Smith's knee injury isn't thought to be serious -- he's expected to play in Game 2 -- even a slight issue can cause problems when he shoots deep 3s and defends Bryant.
Bynum's ability to rotate and recover will be key in Game 2. If he is a defensive liability, as he was in Game 1, his minutes will be limited and the Lakers won't be able to take advantage of his size on offense.
The Nuggets showed just how dangerous and explosive they can be in Game 1, but failure to execute at both ends in the closing minutes did them in. They will come in with confidence, knowing they can put themselves in position to win again. But, no matter how well they play and execute, they have no answer for Bryant when he refuses to allow his team to lose. With the rest of the Lakers expected to provide better support in Game 2, this might be too much for Denver to overcome on the road.
Lakers Win Game 2
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.