Lakers/Nuggets: A-Z Preview
To preview the Round 1 playoff matchup between Los Angeles and Denver, we used each letter of the alphabet to point out some of the more intriguing elements to the series:
Altitude - How much does the altitude actually affect players? Head athletic trainer Gary Vitti answered that one for us, saying that players can initially feel the affects of the thin air that may impact their early-game wind, but the body soon adapts. In short, it's not going to be the reason for a win or a loss, even if the Nuggets make a big show of it with drills over the loudspeaker that warn patrons about their ability – or lack there of – to breath a mile above sea level.
Black Mamba - It's not difficult to make a case that Kobe Bryant is already one of the NBA's Top 5 players of all time, and it's quite easy to put him in the Top 10, with his five rings, countless career milestones and uncountable number of crunch time shots buried while in Black Mamba mode. Having just missed leading the NBA in scoring in his 16th season, Bryant still has a superstar level that is simply higher than any Nugget has neared. He remains the clear driving force behind the Lakers, and even with their two seven footers down low, holds the top slot on Denver's scouting report. He is always the first factor opponents must consider.
Compton Centennial - Where L.A. native Arron Afflalo attended HS before moving onto UCLA. Afflalo has impressed with 15.2 ppg on the season, shooting 50.4% from the field since the All-Star break and nailing 42% from 3-point range, but it's he who will have to start games defending Kobe. That's sure to take a bite out of his offensive production.
Downing - That's a pick and roll term for when the defenses push the basketball into the paint, where big men ike Andrew Bynum await, as opposed to "showing out" hard and crowding the ball-handler. Nuggs PG's Ty Lawson and Andre Miller will surely be running P&R, the most effective offensive maneuver against a team as long and strong as the Lakers that you can't really post up consistently, but Denver lacks a really dangerous roll man. Sub Al Harrington is an excellent pick and pop player, but he's been playing through torn meniscus in his knee.
Elk and Friends - In case you were curious, more than 3,000 elk, 800 bighorn sheep and all kinds of moose and deer are chilling in the Rocky Mountains. I'm now going to arbitrarily assign an animal to four Lakers subs. Matt Barnes: deer; Josh McRoberts: elk; Jordan Hill: moose; Steve Blake: bighorn sheep. Just go with it.
Fast Breaking - Denver feels the same way about running as Messi, their collective engine never stopping, which helped them rank second in the NBA in fast break points. It's no secret that they want to run, trying to score off both opponent's misses and makes with immediate or secondary fast breaking, Dean Smith style (Coach George Karl is a UNC guy).
Green Means Go - If Karl used a traffic light to dictate pace to his team, it would undoubtedly never turn yellow, let alone red, but be stuck on the color most Lakers fans hate most. Mike Brown, meanwhile, doesn't mind some green once in a while – especially when Ramon Sessions has the ball in transition – but he'd definitely hold up the yellow caution if his team got sucked into a running game with Denver.
Health - Perhaps the most important thing for the Lakers heading into the postseason: they are almost fully healthy. In fact, only Barnes is a notable presence on the injury report with his sprained right ankle, but he is expected to play. The three most important Lakers all had a full week of rest from last Sunday's double OT win over OKC and this Sunday's Game 1, which Bryant told us after the Sacramento game was "huge."
In N' Out - I just made you hungry, and while rookies Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock may be forced by the vets to pick up some animal style goodness for the plane trip to Denver on Thursday, the In 'N' Out we're thinking of involves a major key to Denver's offense: dribble drives and kick outs. If L.A. can contain Lawson and Miller when they dip into the paint, the Nuggets will average closer to the 93.5 ppg they hit in four games vs. LAL, not the 104.1 that led the NBA.
Jump - "I get up, and nothing gets me down. You got it tough? I've seen the toughest around." That's right, folks, Van Halen lyrics. Deal with 'em. But doesn't that seem like something Kobe would say, if (certainly not) in those words? Denver is the team that has to prove it has the playoff mettle to beat a veteran Lakers team four times, and the Lakers know it.
Kosta Koufos - Denver's starting center may not have gotten his own letter were he not the only player on either team with a fully alliterative name, so well done to his Greek parents. Alas, he has quite the task in dealing with Bynum, for which he'll surely call upon reserves Timofey Mozgov (also a fun name) and JaVale McGee (not bad).
Lapses - As pointed out viciously at times by Shaquille O'Neal on "Inside the NBA," McGee has been the unfortunate victim of a series of mental lapses throughout the season (i.e. running down on defense while his team is still playing offense). He came over in a deadline trade with Washington for Nene, weakening Denver inside at least in the short term.
Manimal - The nickname for energizer-Nugget rookie Kenneth Faried, who will find himself on many Rookie of the Year ballots (for me, behind team-changers Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio alongside Kahwi Leonard) for some outstanding production, especially of late. Faried averaged 11.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 1.1 bpg in April after barely playing in December and January.
Nashing - Mike Brown invented a term one day in practice – if you can't figure out whom it's named for, you're on your own – about point guards that can get into the paint, keep their dribble and create problems with that probing before making a pass or taking a shot. It came up on a question about Sessions, whom L.A. really wants to be aggressive in the pick and roll, because it puts so much pressure on defenders that really don't want to leave Kobe, Gasol or Bynum. How Ramon responds to his first playoff series will be an LAL key.
Overrated - L.A.'s lack of turnovers. The Lakers rank dead last in the NBA in turnovers forced, creating only 11.29 per game. But that's be design; Brown wants his boys to stay home, utilizing their length to force contested jump shots, instead of gambling by leaking into passing lanes and therefore weakening the defensive structure. The stat L.A.'s coaches pay more attention to is defensive field goal percentage, which was in the top 3 in the NBA for much of the year before slipping in March and April to drop it to ninth.
Paint Destruction - Here we focus on Bynum, who played better against Denver than any other team this season. His splits in four games: 24.8 ppg on 66% FG's, 11.8 rpg and 2.3 bpg. Not one of the Nuggets centers can guard Bynum if he's in the mood, which could mean immediate double teams that open up the floor for other Lakers. That Gasol guy isn't too bad inside, either.
Q You have have thought this alluded to assistant Quin Snyder, but on Mike Brown's staff, "Q" is John Kuester, his former assistant in Cleveland and subsequently a two-year head coach of the Pistons. The Lakers are just happy to have Q back with the team after he spent the past several days with his family dealing with the death of his mother. Our thoughts continue to be with Q, who often designs key plays throughout games and is the guy in charge should Brown get ejected.
Rocky Mountain Columbine - the Colorado state flower, dating back to 1899. Just thought you should know. In other Colorado news: state bird is the lark bunting (wonder if Chris Andersen knows that?); tree the Colorado blue spruce; state song the … OK that's enough.
Sniping from Range - Who's going to shoot the three ball better, you wonder? Well, Denver ranks only 23rd in 3-point %, and is dead last in 3-point % allowed. The Lakers are 25th in 3-point %, and 14th in 3-point % D even though they were fifth just over two weeks ago (opponents got REAL hot from distance down the stretch). You'd think sweet-stroking Gallinari would be Denver's best gunner, but the Italian has actually managed a shockingly low (for him) 32.6% on the season, and he made only 3 for 21 triples in four games against LAL this season (14.3%). Denver's best of late was Lawson, who made 14 of 20 triples in his final six games.
Tempo - This is definitely the buzz word for the entire series, the first word out of Kobe Bryant's mouth when asked what the key was to winning for L.A. The Nuggets want to run literally constantly and the Lakers want to slow it down to best utilize their huge advantage inside with Bynum and Gasol. L.A. was largely able to control tempo in going 3-1 against Denver in the regular season, and has done so in the past against George Karl teams.
Undefeated - In five all-time postseason match ups between the Lakers and Nuggets (1979, 1985, 1987, 2008 and 2009), the Lakers have won each time. Most recently, the 2008-09 Lakers (also featuring Bryant, Gasol and Bynum with Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Trevor Ariza) defeated a Nuggets team that has only one holdover: Chris Andersen.
Viral - Metta World Peace has found ways – podcasting, Twitter, blogging – to get his voice out there since being suspended seven games for elbowing James Harden, one of which he served to conclude the regular season. He has six more to go, putting him out at least through a potential six-game series with Denver, meaning Gallinari – whom we mentioned really struggled with his shot against L.A. this season – will draw Devin Ebanks instead of one of the league's toughest defenders of all time. MWP's voice won't be heard during games, as he's not allowed in the arena during games, but he will practice, travel and eat with his team while chomping at the bit to get back onto the court.
Winning Time - In the NBA playoffs, games so often come down to the final moments. Well, in games that were decided by five points or fewer, the Nuggets were 12-9, pretty good for a team without the proverbial "closer." The Lakers, however, were an impressive 22-8 (.733) in such situations, with Bryant coming on strong late in the season. Bynum, according to 82games.com, ranks 23rd in the league with 29.5 points per 48 minutes of crunch time, the only center in the top 25.
X-Factor - I know, I know, "X-Factor" is kind of a cop out, but unfortunately, not a single player on either team has an X in his name, and no one plays the xylophone. So, who is your X-Factor? We could go with Ramon Sessions, or perhaps Gallinari for Denver, but no player can swing the series more than Bynum. If he plays up to his full All-Star potential, especially on defense, it's quite hard to see the Nuggets winning four games.
Young Blood - One major advantage for the Lakers is good ol' playoff experience, this because only Philadelphia has a younger playoff roster than Denver. The Nuggs starts one rookie (Faried), play one second year player (Mozgov) and rely upon four third year ballers (Lawson, Gallinari Koufos and McGee).
Zeitgeist - The basic culture and climate of the Lakers has always revolved exclusively around winning. For starters, the franchise had made the playoffs all but five times in history, and in all but two seasons since Dr. Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979. The Lakers are 73-30 in Round 1, and have gone 33-1 when winning their opening game. In just a few hours, we'll see how the 2011-12 campaign kicks off. Who's ready?