In our series preview, we suspected Denver would not win if Marcus Camby could not control Pau Gasol on his own, since extra attention to him leaves Kobe Bryant too free to wreak havoc himself. But after the Game 1 Lakers win, it appears that Denver must indeed pay more attention to Gasol simply because his looks were just too easy.
It starts with Denver's atrocious transition defense. The Nuggets might have given up only nine fast-break points, but they got killed by the Lakers' early offense. They retreated back decently (at best) but did not seem to desire finding their own man. And in some cases they just ran to a spot inside and did not bother to find anyone to defend. The defense was so casual that, even after watching and rewatching the film on some of these possessions, I wasn't sure if they were supposed to be in man or zone.
Gasol's first two baskets came because of breakdowns like these. He kept scoring inside on easy buckets, taking advantage of Denver's lackluster effort in its halfcourt defense, both in zone and man. Carmelo Anthony was particularly bad defensively in the first half, using poor technique in defending the post and losing Gasol altogether on scramble situations near the rim. One time, he provided no fight whatsoever on an early offense post-up by Gasol which resulted in a gimme over Anthony in the paint.
Camby, the league's best shot-blocker, likes to roam and hunt blocked shots, and he's especially focused on finding Kobe. But Gasol is too good to leave alone, so he punished Denver's other defenders repeatedly for not being alert to where he was.
When the Nuggets just found a guy on defense to pick up rather than the guy they were guarding, L.A. made them pay because it was patient enough to work the ball and expose the matchup. Denver's pace of play is used in hopes to get teams to take quick shots (one's they are not used to taking) and perhaps miss matchup advantages. But L.A.'s guards are too wise. Look for Denver to talk and point a lot more in its transition defense in Game 2 and beyond, ensuring proper defensive responsibilities.
George Karl has an easy sell to his players: We lost by 14, we missed 14 free throws and we played embarrassingly poor defense. Camby and Anthony were the worst offenders, standing upright often (instead of in a good defensive stance) and not being alert to where the offensive threats were developing, so watching how engaged they are on defense in the first quarter of Game 2 might tell us a lot about how the rest of the series will unfold.
As disinterested as Melo was on defense, he was the opposite on offense -- racing the floor for run outs or early post-ups and staying balanced and focused on his midrange jumpers. He was a force in the first half. He went to work on the blocks in the second quarter and overwhelmed anyone guarding him. The Lakers countered by running Lamar Odom at Melo late in his drive, forcing him to shoot over those extra-long arms. It's a sound strategy by the Lakers and one I expect to see again.
Denver's offense is more controlled chaos than anything else, and even though the Nuggets scored 114 points, they left a lot of points on the court. Their pace and constant ball movement creates mismatches with both Iverson and Melo, getting players not capable of staying in front of them to be forced to do just that. But too often in Game 1 both players settled for long jumpshots instead of attacking and kicking or finishing. The Nuggets shot 37 free throws, which is good, but there were 15-plus left to be taken.
The Lakers helped to induce some of those jumpers, playing softly on the ball and going under ball screens. When the Nuggets set some screens closer to the basket, they can make L.A. pay for playing below the screen. If they adopt just a little more of a "grind it out" mentality on offense, they can really hurt the Lakers and put them in serious foul trouble.
The Lakers should be ready for this, and can employ some soft zones to continue to induce Nuggets jumpers and inhibit their basket attacks.
L.A. needs to be more worried about controlling Iverson. When the Lakers were able to force him to dribble attack laterally, by playing soft and showing defensive helpers up the floor, Iverson was very ineffective. But when he attacked more vertically on Lakers breakdowns, using both ball screens and his own talent at changing speeds, he was terrific at both scoring and drawing fouls. It appears Gasol can not hedge effectively against Iverson on ball screens, so getting immediate wing help is a must, or A.I. can get to the rim and likely draw some fouls on Pau. L.A. can try to just jam up Iverson with that second defender, or even blitz him and try to trap/contain him with bigger guards and wings.
If Iverson recognizes that he can score 20-plus points but get 15-plus assists against this style of defense, Denver's offense can definitely jump up a notch. Consider that super subs Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith scored a combined 38 points on just 21 shots. They are very dangerous players, especially when A.I. is playing more of a point guard role. The Lakers might decide to cut off much of their help on A.I. and force him into being solely a scorer. Iverson played that role very poorly in last year's playoffs versus the Spurs as he struggled to finish shots against their big men around the rim. But L.A.'s interior defense is not as good as San Antonio's, so it's a risk to play a similar strategy.
Kobe spent considerable time on A.I., and though his size allowed him to block a shot, he wasn't particularly good at containing Iverson, who still moves at warp speed. Kobe finished the game with five fouls, a dangerous number had the game been just a little tighter.
The way Denver plays defense and the overall speed of the game did have one negative affect on L.A.'s offense: Kobe had open looks all game and did not play his usual (for this season) game of facilitating for his teammates. He finished with 26 shots (making nine), 14 free throws and one assist. That is the trap that Denver likes to create -- getting guys to take quick shots instead of running their usual offense. He failed to attack much of the time that he was faced with a Denver big (due to their poor transition matching up), or he neglected to move the ball so a teammate could exploit their matchup. Kobe knows he can score 50 in a game or two this series, but if he employs more discipline and trusts the system, he will still score efficiently and in large numbers and rack up a lot more assists.
These teams are a lot closer in talent and ability, and Denver has to realize it can win a game with more patience and smarter offensive execution combined with more mental focus on defense -- the Nuggets outscored L.A. in quarters 1, 2 and 4 (cumulatively). But it takes four good quarters to beat a No. 1 seed on the road. I think Denver can do it, although this should be a game that is very tight at the end.
PREDICTION: Nuggets win Game 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.