Before the playoffs, I predicted that the Lakers would beat the Nuggets in seven games. And so while I’m not entirely surprised that the younger, deeper Nuggets have a chance to tie the first-round series at three games apiece with a victory in Denver on Thursday, the manner in which we’ve arrived here has been unexpected. Five reasons this series is still going on:
• The Nuggets, in the most basic sense, are winning or at least “tying” the major trade-offs they have to make because of the Lakers’ massive size advantage. One such trade-off: scoring enough fast-break points by outrunning the Lakers’ big men to compensate for all of Los Angeles’ post-up scores, offensive rebounds and easy buckets that come with pounding the ball inside. Denver has pulled the trick so far, in part because it is simply outhustling the Lakers.
The Nuggets averaged a league-high 19.8 fast-break points during the regular season, according to NBA.com. They’ve increased that number to 21 per game in this series, an even better accomplishment than it appears when you consider two things:
1. The Lakers are winning the tempo battle in general. The teams have averaged about 90 possessions per game in the series, almost exactly what L.A. averaged in the regular season and down substantially from the league-leading 94 possessions per game for the roadrunner Nuggets.
2. The Lakers are not turning the ball over. Only two teams, Denver and San Antonio, have coughed it up less often per possession in the postseason, meaning the Nuggets are not feasting on an unusual number of steals and run-outs.
They are just running, harder and more often than the Lakers’ slower big men. Nuggets rookie Kenneth Faried manufactured two easy layups from thin air in the first quarter of Tuesday’s Game 5 victory simply by outworking the Lakers. The first came after an Andrew Bynum put-back at the 10:55 mark, when, in a bit of showmanship, the Lakers’ center decided to hold his follow-through pose for an extra beat. Faried just put his head down and ran by Bynum, passed him well before mid-court, happily caught a gorgeous over-the-top pass from point guard Ty Lawson and scored. That’s the epitome of the size-for-speed trade-off, really: You take the put-back, we’ll take the early-offense layup and call it even.
The second, inexcusably, came after a missed Kobe Bryant free throw, when Faried, with inside rebounding position on Pau Gasol, turned and blew by Gasol in the open floor. Four hustle points, in a game Denver won by three.
Coach George Karl has also sneaked in snippets of small-ball, with forward Al Harrington at center, during stretches when Lakers power forward Jordan Hill, a limited offensive threat, is on the floor. Denver got a three-pointer from Arron Afflalo out of this when Harrington sprinted by Bynum in transition — an unfair matchup, really — and drew Bryant’s attention in the lane, leaving Afflalo uncovered trailing the play. And that first beautiful lob play between point guard Andre Miller and center JaVale McGee early in the fourth quarter was possible in part because Hill, scrambling with McGee under the rim during a Gasol post-up, realized a half-second after McGee that the Nuggets had stolen the ball. McGee was gone.
The Nuggets killed teams the entire season by taking advantage of these teensy lapses in attention. There was skepticism around the league about whether they could continue generating points this way in the playoffs, when defenses are tuned in. They have answered in the affirmative so far, and the Lakers have helped.
• The more obvious trade-off has been the Nuggets’ decision to help defensively off every Laker not named Bryant, Gasol or Bynum, daring those other players to beat them from the perimeter. Point guards Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions made Denver pay for that strategy at the end of Game 4, but in the larger picture, it has been an emphatic success. Lakers forward Devin Ebanks has shot a decent 10-of-23, but he hasn’t been able to stay on the floor much because forward Matt Barnes has been a more effective defender and intuitive cutter away from the ball on offense.
But Barnes has been an absolute disaster overall. He is shooting 11-of-40 (27.5 percent) from the field and just 2-of-20 from three-point range, including 1-of-13 from the corners, an area from which he hit a (barely) acceptable 35 percent this season, per NBA.com. The Nuggets just aren’t guarding Barnes, choosing instead to have his man deny entry passes when the Lakers try to post up on Barnes’ side of the floor and simply roam away from him when the action is happening elsewhere. Barnes has responded with a few nice cuts and impromptu pick-and-rolls from the sideline, but it hasn’t been nearly enough.
Blake is 11-of-30 (36.7 percent). Sessions, looking a bit uncomfortable inside the three-point line, is shooting just 39.7 percent and hasn’t generated his usual share of free throws.
Basically, this is all working out quite nicely for Denver. The occasional steal via trapping chaos is just gravy atop a pile of Lakers bricks.
• A connected issue: The Lakers are starting to miss the suspended Metta World Peace, on both ends of the floor. Despite the obvious decline in his game, World Peace is a much better three-point shooter than Barnes. He hit at least a league-average percentage from deep in four straight seasons before this one, and he had been right at the league average this season after a horrid first two months. Toss in an effective post game the Lakers could use when the Nuggets (who are without Wilson Chandler) play Corey Brewer or Afflalo at small forward, and it’s clear the Lakers miss World Peace’s scoring punch.
Ebanks’ occasional difficulties and Barnes’ poor shooting at the small-forward position have led the Lakers to play a lot of crunch-time minutes with both point guards on the floor and Bryant at small forward. The Nuggets have punished the Lakers in these instances. Sessions and Blake are both “minus” defenders, jumpy on the pick-and-roll, vulnerable in isolation and outmatched against Miller in the post. The Nuggets may have issues with the lack of a clear “closer” on offense — and I’m not convinced they do — but Miller has proved he can step into that role against this particular Lakers team.
• McGee, who was acquired in a midseason trade with Washington, is playing the best ball of his life. Let’s not overstate the transformation, though. He committed two goaltending violations in Game 5, including one in which he stuck his hand through the basket and still looked confused about why the officials blew the whistle. His lack of touch on non-dunk shots is almost unbelievable. He surrendered a potentially crippling put-back to Bynum by half-jumping at a Sessions floater he had as much chance of blocking as Larry David did. The Nuggets have fared much better on the defensive glass with McGee on the bench, just as the Wizards did.
But McGee has given Denver something it had to have to compete in this series: a center playing well enough to justify Karl’s using an actual center for nearly the full 48 minutes. Kosta Koufos clearly wasn’t ready, and Timofey Mozgov, who provides some stalwart (and very foul-prone) post defense, is a zero on offense right now.
Enter McGee. The Nuggets’ offensive rebounding has jumped with McGee on the floor at about the same rate their defensive rebounding rate has fallen — another trade-off. He has supplied crucial rim protection and avoided the sort of insane block-hunting near the free-throw line that sabotaged the Wizards so often.
After McGee was traded for Nene, folks around the league and even in Washington conceded that the 24-year-old McGee might begin to at least refine some of his bad habits surrounded by better players and a development staff regarded as one of the NBA’s two or three best. That has happened. McGee stays down much more often while contesting shots, he has slithered around some flat-footed Bynum defense along the baseline area for a handful of tricky baskets, and he has even dished four assists in this series after lucking his way into just 31 in 61 games this season. And, as mentioned above, he has hurt the Lakers, especially Bynum, in transition.
• The looming issue here is Denver’s alleged lack of a closer, and the Nuggets are indeed just 4-of-12 in the last five minutes of close games (margin of five points or fewer) in these playoffs. They also scored just six points on eight possessions in the last five minutes of Game 5 before the Lakers began fouling intentionally.
Those are bad numbers, but I’m skeptical there is really a pressing concern. First, in the regular season, Denver ranked fifth in points per possession in the last three minutes of games in which the scoring margin was three points or fewer, per NBA.com. The closer issue was a nonissue during the season.
And if you go back and watch those 12 late-game shot attempts against the Lakers, plus three others from Tuesday that didn’t qualify as “clutch” because Denver was up by more than five, you’ll see that the Nuggets have gotten mostly fantastic looks in crunch time. The three bad ones? McGee’s inexplicable attempt at a complex one-on-one post move with 3:30 to go Tuesday; Lawson’s settling for a step-back jumper over Bynum after a stagnant possession two minutes later; and a tough Miller leaner in Game 4.
The other 12 shots? Great looks, with the exception of a meaningless Brewer half-court heave as the Game 4 buzzer sounded. Lawson has missed two wide-open threes off screening action, and Harrington bricked one in Game 4 after the Lakers left him to double-team Miller in the post. The Nuggets rebounded that miss, and on the ensuing possession, Miller fooled the Lakers on a back cut, caught a lob pass and just airballed an open layup. Blake recovered to stuff Gallinari on a crunch-time fast-break layup in the same game. Afflalo missed a clean turnaround over Blake in the paint Tuesday minutes after hitting a similar (though closer) shot against Blake.
The one drawback is that the Nuggets have been baited into more three-pointers than they might normally take. Their shot selection also veered more toward threes in crunch time during the regular season, and given the Lakers’ size, it’s not surprising to see the same thing in this series.
Bottom line: If Denver keeps generating clean looks, some will start to go in, and the “closer” issue will dissipate. The Lakers have a fight on their hands either way.