Scouting Update: Nuggets-Lakers, Gm. 5
It seems hard to imagine a player leading his team to victory by missing his first seven shots and finishing 3-for-16 from the field. But that's exactly what Carmelo Anthony did in Game 4, as he got the Nuggets back into their rim-attacking mode. By being aggressive early in the first quarter, Anthony set the tone for the Nuggets to demolish the Lakers inside with 52 points in the paint, 20 offensive rebounds and a blowout win to even the series at 2-2.
The Lakers' tactical adjustments are secondary to an adjustment in demeanor -- they are once again wearing the "soft" label. They are in a fight, and even though the rounds may be even on the scorecard, they are taking many more punches than they are giving. When bodies collided in Game 4, it was a Laker who usually ended up on the floor.
L.A. must come out more physical and aggressive in Game 5. This means banging bodies, jamming cutters and winning the physical confrontations in defensive and rebounding situations. Everything else in Game 5 for the Lakers is secondary.
This starts on the defensive end, with defenders being in an aggressive defensive stance, in a more athletic position to contest plays. Time and time again in Game 4, Lakers defenders off the ball were standing and watching, which made them late on help situations and steal attempts, and gave the Nuggets free lanes to the offensive glass.
In Game 5, Lakers weakside defenders must use their entire 2.9 seconds in the paint, and they must stand up the Nuggets' cutters coming into the lane, not allowing the easy face cuts to the rim for layups and putbacks.
The Lakers' guards must be in the paint on shot attempts, and L.A. must clog the lane area with five defensive rebounders. With Denver sending everyone to the offensive glass, the Lakers can open up their fast break if they can regain control of the defensive boards.
If the Lakers can rebound and run, they can force the Nuggets to start more possessions in their haphazard transition defense, in which the Nuggets just pick up the closest guy. This puts the Nuggets in mismatches early in the possession, with smalls guarding bigs inside.
The first possession of the third quarter of Game 4 was a perfect example, as the Lakers caught Dahntay Jones guarding Pau Gasol inside. L.A. reversed the ball, then brought it back to Gasol's side for the entry pass. Jones' only answer was to push Gasol in the back as he made the layup.
These opportunities are there in almost every transition situation, and this is the real Achilles' heel in Denver's defense. Attacking these mismatches and getting the multiple ball reversals must be a point of emphasis for the Lakers in Game 5.
In the half court, the Lakers will see in their Game 4 film study that the Nuggets continue to be mismatched on many possessions in their switching and overload helping schemes. However, L.A. has failed to make Denver pay for this, and it missed opportunities in Game 4.
Derek Fisher, in particular, has failed to recognize these situations, as he takes jumpers with defenders in his face while Gasol and Andrew Bynum have mismatches inside. Fisher isn't the only Laker guilty of this, but as the starter next to Bryant, he must better recognize these situations early in the game and get the ball entered to the most advantageous position.
In Game 5, L.A. must put Denver in as many screening situations as possible to force the switch, then reverse the ball to a driver on the weak side or isolate the mismatched defender inside. When Denver has a smaller defender on Gasol or Bynum, which is often, the ball must go inside.
One mystery in the Lakers' offense is the virtual elimination of their high-low option in the triangle, which is the best way for them to take advantage of their size up front. They used this effectively against a much bigger Boston team in last year's Finals, with Lamar Odom and Gasol, but have abandoned this with an even greater advantage against the Nuggets when Bynum is on the floor.
The Lakers have become enamored with the dribble handoff option on the weak side, and in Game 5, look for them to get back to the high post flash and dump down to the front of the rim to Bynum or Gasol sealing inside.
However they do it, they must get Gasol and Bynum more touches inside. By pounding the Nuggets inside, they will slow the Nuggets down, and this may be the way to open up the Lakers' perimeter shooters. With Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar finding their shooting strokes again in Game 4, this could be a key in keeping them going in Game 5.
There are no subtleties or nuances to the Nuggets' strategy -- they are going to attempt to bully the Lakers at both ends of the floor. They won every physical confrontation in Game 4, and they mauled the Lakers at the rim and on the offensive glass. Expect nothing less than that aggressiveness in Game 5.
The Nuggets are scoring from all over the floor, and after hanging 120 points on one of the league's best defenses in Game 4, Denver has lost all fear of attacking the Lakers at the rim. The Nuggets will continue to run in Game 5, but they must be efficient and take good shots, as the Lakers will be expected to get back and defend much better.
In the half court, Chauncey Billups has found that the Lakers really don't have a defender who can keep him out of the paint, so look for him to be aggressive off the dribble in Game 5, especially if Kobe Bryant is guarding Anthony.
Also look for the Nuggets to continue to move Anthony around on the floor to prevent the Lakers from loading up their help. Carmelo must continue his assaults on the rim, which opened up the offensive rebound opportunities for his teammates in Game 4. It is his aggressiveness, not his point production, that is the key to Denver's offense.
J.R. Smith must also continue his drives inside, as the Lakers don't have a defender to keep him out of the lane, especially in their second unit. L.A. is hoping that Smith will float on the perimeter and fall back in love with his 3-point attempts. He must continue to go right at defenders off the dribble.
Defensively, the Nuggets won't change a thing for Game 5. They are pushing the Lakers around and have them focused on officiating, which is right where the Nuggets want to be, in their heads.
Denver will continue its formula of rotating Dahntay Jones and Smith onto Bryant at different times in the game, with Anthony doing time on him as well. And even though Bryant had some big numbers and hit big baskets in Games 1 and 3, most of his points late in the game have come on tough shots that were well defended.
There is no defense for the "Mamba Moments," but Denver will continue to deny and be physical with Bryant on every possession in Game 5. With Kobe working so hard to get the ball, it puts pressure on the other Lakers to produce, which so far, they have been unable to do.
Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom. These two have been virtually nonexistent in the past three games. After Fisher had 13 points and six assists in Game 1, he has totaled 12 points and six assists in Games 2, 3 and 4 combined -- making only 5 of 22 shots.
Odom averaged 17.5 points on 65 percent shooting against Utah in the first round, but is shooting 34 percent and scoring just 7.5 points in this series. He has totaled just 13 points on 3-of-13 shooting in the past two games. L.A. can't win without one of these two producing on offense.
Birdman and J.R. Smith. Chris Andersen is wreaking havoc on the glass and Smith has found himself offensively. Denver will need their spark and energy off the bench even more on the road.
Denver is now the aggressor and the more confident team in this series. The Nuggets will come into Game 5 with guns blazing.
The Lakers have no need to panic. They still hold home-court advantage in what is now a best-of-three series. However, just flipping the switch isn't good enough. They must respond with more toughness and aggressiveness than they have shown in any game so far this season, and more than just Kobe must answer the call. This is "heart of a champion" time. Expect the home crowd to help them find it.
Prediction: Lakers win Game 5
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.
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