In a complete reversal of roles in Game 2, it was the Denver Nuggets, not the Los Angeles Lakers, who showed their championship mettle. The Nuggets came back from a double-digit first-half deficit, made the big plays down the stretch, and got clutch scoring and defense from their star. The Lakers, on the other hand, blew the lead, missed free throws and could not execute in the closing minutes. Over the course of the first two games of this series, neither team has established itself as the favorite -- which is now best of five, with Denver having the home-court advantage.
Phil Jackson has to be extremely concerned with the decision-making of his perimeter players, as bad shots, turnovers and failure to recognize situations plagued the Lakers throughout Game 2. They will lose this series if this doesn't improve in Game 3.
Bad decisions led Derek Fisher to take bad shots and Shannon Brown to drive right at Chris Andersen at the rim. Sasha Vujacic had his 3-pointer blocked with Pau Gasol posted on Linas Kleiza, while Fisher launched a contested 3 with Gasol having J.R. Smith posted inside in the fourth quarter.
Contrast this with Kobe Bryant, who saw Andersen switched onto him in the post in a key second-half possession. Bryant released to the corner, drawing Andersen out of the lane. Then he caught the pass and ripped baseline for a dunk. Bryant did what good NBA players do: He recognized the situation, read the play and reacted to what he saw.
In Game 2, the Lakers' guards were just reacting to activity without recognizing or reading situations. This was especially evident in post-up situations, which led to tipped passes and turnovers in crucial situations. Both Fisher and Luke Walton had second-half turnovers trying to force the ball into Gasol. Fisher fired it inside with Kenyon Martin denying and deflecting the pass, and Walton threw the ball over Gasol's head when he was still trying to get position.
In Game 3, the Lakers must have the patience to wait for Gasol to establish position and call for the ball, and the guards must use a pass fake before the entry to avoid deflections. Gasol's frustration with his guards was evident. He took only nine shots in Game 2, so look for more of an emphasis on getting Gasol the ball in the half-court offense.
With Bryant being guarded by seven different defenders in Game 2 and expecting more of the tag-team approach in Game 3, the Lakers must get more production from their perimeter shooters, especially Fisher and Vujacic. The duo was a combined 1-for-13 in Game 2. Bryant even attempted to get Vujacic going in the first half, passing up scoring opportunities on the break to get Vujacic two wide-open jumpers. They were both missed. Bryant may have to abandon that plan in Game 3 if his supporting cast cannot deliver.
Bryant can post almost any of the defenders Denver throws at him, and the Lakers' best set to do this has Kobe flashing from the weak side with a shooter on Kobe's side in the corner. This prevents Denver from doubling on the ball side and gives Denver only three defenders to help in the paint.
If the Nuggets trap from the weak side, the diagonal pass to the opposite block or wing is available on the ball reversal. With Denver expected to trap Bryant more and more in Game 3, expect this set to be effective for the Lakers if they can get a quick ball reversal. If Lamar Odom is on the receiving end of this pass, he must abandon the finger rolls and finish stronger at the rim.
The Lakers must also find a better way to get Bryant his opportunities at the end of Game 3. The Nuggets jammed him up twice at the top of the floor when the Lakers went to a high pick-and-roll, which takes away Kobe's space to work. Contrast this with last season's endgame strategy against Boston, when Bryant was isolated against Ray Allen and the other Lakers flattened out on the baseline. Look for Jackson to go back to that strategy in Game 3 to give Kobe a chance to attack in space.
Before Game 3, Jackson should take a moment to watch the Cleveland-Orlando Game 2 tape. All he has to watch is the last second of the game. Bryant, the best closer in the game, has to be allowed the opportunity to tie or win the game with the last shot.
Defensively, the Lakers must quickly flood toward Carmelo Anthony when he catches the ball. They cannot allow him a running start to the basket. Look for renewed defensive aggressiveness toward Anthony in Game 3, with Trevor Ariza, Walton and Bryant denying hard, and extra defenders flying Carmelo's way when he catches. Andrew Bynum and Odom must make more of a total commitment to this rotation; they must get there faster. Just a hand in the face isn't enough. And it may be time to put Anthony on his back if he continues to live at the rim.
Now that Kleiza has asserted himself with four 3-pointers in Game 2, the Lakers must have a better plan for contesting him on the catch in Game 3. On his first 3-point attempt that got him rolling, Walton had to help too deep when Smith blew by Vujacic from the top. With both feet in the paint, Walton had no chance to get to Kleiza.
In Game 3, L.A. must either stay flatter on the ball handler on top to keep Walton from having to help as much, or bring the weakside defenders deeper into the paint so that the baseline defender on the drive side -- in this case, Odom -- can cheat to Kleiza and contest with more length.
The Nuggets' biggest adjustment in Game 2 came when things were completely unraveling in the second quarter. His team down 14 and giving up layup after layup, Anthony decided it was time for him to guard Bryant. When Anthony began denying Bryant and going chest-to-chest with him, everything changed for the Nuggets, and Denver cut the Lakers' lead to one in less than three minutes.
That defensive mentality carried over to the second half of Game 2 as well, with Chauncey Billups denying hard on a Jordan Farmar cut that led to a deep, forced jump shot by Gasol at the end of the shot clock. It was evident again when Birdman sprinted from the rim at the offensive end to trap Bryant on the wing 75 feet away, forcing Bryant into a charging foul in the lane.
But it was most evident on the last play of the game, as Nene flew out to Derek Fisher in the corner to contest and prevent a tying 3-point shot at the buzzer.
This defensive effort is the key for Denver in Game 3. Expect them to continue to deny, grab, hold, push and lean on Bryant all night with multiple defenders, with Anthony guarding him at crunch time. The Nuggets have made it pretty clear that they are going to foul Bryant on every play as he tries to cut or post and force the officials to make the calls.
An area of continued concern for the Nuggets in Game 3 is their defensive boards, as they gave up 13 offensive rebounds, five each for Gasol and Odom. Denver must get their guards involved in that action by getting all five defenders into the paint on Lakers shot attempts.
Offensively, the Nuggets did a masterful job of putting Kenyon Martin on the baseline behind the Lakers' rotations, which led to easy baskets as the Lakers tried to flood toward Carmelo. Martin's 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting was a huge contribution, and this will force L.A. to pay more attention to him in Game 3. This could then open things up for Nene to flash or attack the offensive glass.
George Karl continues to move Anthony around on the floor, making denial and rotations more difficult for the Lakers' defense. But it is Carmelo's aggressiveness that is key to the entire scheme. He was ferocious in Game 2, attacking off the dribble and on the offensive boards. Anthony is playing with the confidence of an MVP candidate, so expect him to continue his assault on the rim in Game 3.
Also look for the Nuggets to continue going with a smaller lineup in Game 3 with Kleiza as the 4. This forces Bynum to the bench and negates his offensive advantage, as well as the Lakers' dominance on the boards. Bynum's absence means more offensive rebounds for the Nuggets, as Anthony got five and Kleiza three in Game 2.
And with Anthony getting increased attention, it may be Chauncey Billups who goes back into the "Mr. Big Shot" role in Game 3. Bryant can't guard them both.
Bench scoring. Outside of Kleiza, the Nuggets got only five points from Smith, Andersen and Anthony Carter in Game 2.
For both teams, the officiating will be a critical factor. There were fouls on nearly every play in Game 2, with bodies flying all over the floor and players on both teams hitting the deck on nearly every possession. Look for early whistles in Game 3 to prevent a repeat of that mayhem.
Odom must be more assertive on offense in Game 3. The Lakers will need his scoring with Denver gang-tackling Bryant on every possession.
When Ariza got taken down in Game 2 and Gasol got shoved into the baseline seats, the Lakers did very little to respond. The toughness they showed during the regular season is now being tested.
This series has a resembled Detroit's 2004 NBA Finals victory over Los Angeles, in which the Pistons won one game in L.A. and gave another one away. They took that confidence home with them and won every game after that.
Denver has the same momentum, and the same point guard in Billups. Knowing it could be up 2-0, and having won 16 straight at home with a 6-0 home record in the playoffs, Denver has to feel it can take command of this series in Game 3.
But the Lakers were the best road team in the NBA this season, and coming off a game they felt they gave away, they will come in wounded and with a sense of increased urgency. With Byrant's supporting cast failing him, he could very well post his biggest scoring number of the playoffs. Look for Game 3 to be a raucous, rowdy affair, with plenty of hard fouls and contentious moments -- which is just the way the Nuggets want it.
Nuggets Win Game 3
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.