Nuggets miss opportunity to KO champs
GAME TIME: Lakers 95, Nuggets 89
This was a devastating ballgame for Denver. Not just because of the loss itself, but because of how they lost.
The game also demonstrated the vast difference in the respective games, attitudes and resourcefulness of each team’s leading light — Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant.
But let’s start off by examining Denver’s extraordinarily effective performance in the opening two quarters. From the opening tip, the Nuggets simply played like gangbusters and thoroughly intimidated the Lakers in just about every aspect of the game:
• By challenging every pass and every catch, Denver drastically reduced the Lakers’ safe-completion areas and thereby forced L.A. into 14 first-half turnovers, many of which led to breakaway baskets.
• They used Nene in several high screen-and-rolls that forced Andrew Bynum to make decisions that were both quick and appropriate. Unfortunately for the home-standing Lakers, Bynum did neither.
• The same philosophy spilled over into the Nuggets’ defense, when their double-teaming of Bynum totally discombobulated the young center.
• Nene moved without the ball extremely well. With the Lakers so intent on helping on Carmelo Anthony, Nene crept along the baseline behind the defense and wound up with a batch of easy layups.
• The Nuggets moved their feet at both ends of the court and routinely sought to locate, and pass to, the open man on offense.
• Arron Afflalo played adhesive defense versus Kobe and also nailed his open jumpers.
• Whenever Kobe ventured into the low post, he was often beaten to entry passes (by both Afflalo and J.R. Smith), while the rest of the defense simply walled off the paint.
• Above all, before the intermission, Denver out-hustled and out-muscled L.A. from baseline to baseline and sideline to sideline. They initiated contact and played with supreme confidence. And the Lakers reacted by playing carelessly, casually and softer than a bag of marshmallows.
But everything changed in the second half. Indeed, it appeared as though after roundly defeating the Lakers by a total of 39 points in their previous two meetings, the Nuggets believed that they already had the game in hand — that they owned the Lakers.
As a result:
• The Nuggets stopped moving the ball and started taking quick shots from the perimeter.
• When George Karl reminded them that their offense was stagnating, they tried to compensate by over handling and over-passing — and subsequently, committed multiple turnovers.
• Both their inside and outside defense became significantly less aggressive.
• And neither Kenyon Martin nor Chris Andersen could handle Lamar Odom.
In addition, comparing the overall play of Kobe vs. ’Melo is quite revealing.
The Nuggets’ initial plan was to try to deny Kobe the ball. Once he did gain possession, he was either doubled, or else a big rotated into a nearby help area. The idea was to keep Kobe on the perimeter and away from the basket. And this strategy worked as Kobe wound up shooting only 3-for-17 and committing five turnovers.
But in the second half, Kobe stopped looking for his shot and became a willing facilitator, registering 12 assists as the Lakers flooded open spaces in the paint with dive-cutters. It was Kobe’s embracing of a totally unselfish game plan that was perhaps the most significant factor in turning the game around. Bryant’s in-game adjustment proved that winning is vastly more important to him than accumulating personal stats.
On the other hand, Anthony was likewise bedeviled by the defense he faced — with the most infernal defender being Ron Artest. In fact, Ron Ron is the only Laker defender with the right combination of size, strength, quick hands and total dedication who has a chance to control ’Melo.
But where Kobe reacted to a defense designed to smother him by changing his focus and creating easy shots for his teammates, ’Melo made no such adjustment. Instead, Anthony continued to look for his shots and virtually ignored his teammates. No matter what, ’Melo repeatedly forced shots and tried to bully his way to the rim. That’s why he registered only one assist to go along with his eight turnovers.
In the end, Kobe’s unselfishness and adjustments served to emphasize Anthony’s selfishness and blind stubbornness.
Taking a cue perhaps from their best player, the rest of the Nuggets began firing up hurried shots. They finished with only 15 team assists (to the Lakers’ 21) and their collective shooting was a wretched 35.9 percent.
As a result, Denver’s cohesiveness totally broke down. Only a batch of scores by Chauncey Billups kept the game close in the waning minutes.
Rather than proving that they belong in the same competitive bracket as the Lakers, the Nuggets proved the reverse:
• Too many of the Nuggets simply didn’t show up: Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen and J. R. Smith.
• They bullied the Lakers only until the Lakers (mostly Artest) started fighting back. Then, they were the ones who played like wusses.
• Most importantly, they lacked the focus, the will power and the maturity to continue doing what enabled them to command the game in the first half.
Prior to the game, Phil Jackson offered what seemed to be reasonable reasons why his team had been so easily defeated by Denver in their previous meetings. The initial blowout came on the second half of a back-to-back set where the Lakers didn’t arrive in Denver until 5 a.m. of game day. In the second defeat, Denver shot 15-for-22 from beyond the arc, a feat that they’ll never come close to duplicating.
In any case, while Denver can match L.A. in talent and can surpass the Lakers in physicality, when the playing field is equal, the Nuggets still have to prove that they can compete with the defending champions both mentally and emotionally.