- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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When a team loses a game 122-107, it's easy to suggest that it has to tighten up its defense quite a bit to get a win the next time out. But when you are dealing with the Denver Nuggets, who break many of the NBA "truisms," you must always look at their offense first. This is the case as we look ahead to Game 3. If Denver hopes to win a game against the powerful Lakers machine then it first needs to tweak its offense.
While not excusing Denver's defense entirely by any means, it is clear that the Nuggets made excellent improvements from Game 1, especially in their transition defense. Denver forced LA to execute better on offense, giving it far fewer easy looks by initially matching up better. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom had to work much harder to get shots, and few came early in the offense. They combined for 53 points in Game 1, but had just 22 (Odom scored only four) in Game 2. For Denver, Mission No. 1 accomplished.
But the problem with defending the Lakers, and a big reason they are the No. 1 seed, is that Kobe Bryant is a star who doesn't score 30 points and get five assists on a great night -- instead he goes for 49 and 10. And he gets easy looks for players like Luke Walton, who scored 18 points on 11 shots. Denver hoped to lure Kobe into taking a lot of outside shots by guarding him an arm and a half's distance away (instead of an arm length or even half a length), using both Kenyon Martin (strong and big) and J.R. Smith (strong and quick). But they failed to adjust when he started draining long jumpers and 3s. When "Mr. 81" gets it going, Denver needs to immediately adjust into a different mode. Crowding him when he has the ball is the starting point. Kobe has seen, and beaten, every defense available, but the Nuggets have to try anything they can to slow him down when he's hot from the field. They didn't, and Kobe had 20 in the first quarter.
Throughout the game, Denver tried even more players on him with little success. Kobe did take lots of perimeter shots, so the Nuggets might be inclined to defend him the same way initially, hoping he misses more in Denver. Should he heat up though, expect the Nuggets to drive him towards harder double-teams and traps. Denver can try to zone up again, tagging Kobe early, but LA attacks zones extremely well with quality passers like Walton, Gasol and Odom. The length those three possess make them able to pass over the top of the defense. LA is able to surround the zone with good shooters while slicing guys through the middle or in the short corner when the zone extends to contest the shooter. There is a reason LA is one of the top three offensive teams in the NBA, and it's not just because of Kobe.
As mentioned at the outset, it is Denver's offense that needs to heat up in Game 3, to best give them a chance to win. And its best chance at making that happen is to pass up 3s and look for drives. Despite finishing 19th in the league in 3-point field goal percentage, the Nuggets were sixth in two-point field goal percentage. And they led the league in free throws attempted and made. They are extremely difficult to keep from getting to the basket because of their quickness with the ball, and LA is struggling to defend their ball screens, much like everyone else has. The Lakers used their bigs to "hardhedge" ball screens most of the time, with the big defender relocating back to his man once the ball was slowed. But Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and Smith, normally explode past the hedger, creating easy 5-on-3 scoring opportunities. But when Denver chooses to launch 3s early in the possession, and before it gets into its ball screen action, it takes the pressure off of LA's defenders. The Nuggets took 36 free throws in Game 2, which seems like a lot, but it's only five more than what they averaged all season. And their 19 3s (making just four) is right at their season average. Taking 10 less 3s could result in 10-20 more free throws, and 5-10 more fouls on the Lakers players. A decidedly better result, most likely, for Denver, which just can't play the way it normally does to beat this Lakers team (they are 0-5 so far this season against LA).
Although I predicted Denver would win Game 2, I actually felt the Nuggets had one chance in four to pull it off. Back home in Denver, I'd raise those odds to just 50-50. They count on their home court altitude advantage to work teams over, but LA has such superior depth compared to most teams. I expect the Nuggets to focus on getting layups and dunks (instead of a bunch of 3s) and putting some Lakers in foul trouble. But their body language really bothered me in Games 1 and 2, both towards the referees and occasionally each other. It takes cohesiveness, amongst other things, to beat a team as good as LA. Is it possible that a 50-win team could lose the first three games of a series? Yes.
PREDICTION: Lakers win Game 3
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.