Sunday, April 3, 2011
Nuggets 95, Lakers 90 -- At the buzzer
By Brian Kamenetzky
They can't win 'em all, right?
Sunday afternoon, the early-start bug again bit the Lakers, who were sluggish offensively from the get-go, and over the second half couldn't adequately match the intensity of the visiting Nuggets. Give Denver plenty of credit, though. The Nuggets came into Staples against a red-hot team, and earned a legitimate win. "I told the team we beat ourselves, but it's not quite the story," Phil Jackson said after the game. "I think Denver is very aggressive. They created the 20 turnovers that really hurt us over the course of the ballgame."
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Raymond Felton had 16 points in the second half as the Nuggets handed the Lakers only their second loss since the All Star break Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
As noted in today's preview, if the Lakers have been Story 1 since the break, Denver is Story 1a, having now won 15 of 19 since the Carmelo Anthony deal. No pure stars, but probably more B- to B+ players than any team in the league. Certainly the Lakers left Sunday's game with a healthy respect for their depth. "You look at their lineup; they essentially have two starting fives," Kobe Bryant said. "That second group that comes off the bench, that’s a legitimate starting five in this league."
Here's how it broke down ...
1. The Third Quarter. In 14 games since March 1, the Lakers have averaged about 9.5 turnovers a night. Out of the break Sunday afternoon, they gave the ball away six times, five coming in the first 6:17 of the quarter. No wonder the Nuggets were able to quickly erase L.A.'s halftime advantage. The Lakers were left on their heels, trying to cross-match defensively and allowing Denver far too much access to the paint, where the Nuggets scored 16 points.
Overall, Denver shot 65 percent over 12 minutes.
Moreover, the handouts robbed the Lakers of six opportunities to score during a quarter in which they shot 50 percent as a team. Think another six or so points might have come in handy?
Meanwhile, the final quarter wasn't much better. The Lakers cranked up the intensity late, but by then the damage was done, as Denver shot 10-for-18 down the stretch and put L.A. in too deep a hole, despite a late rally.
2. Offensive Flow. Before the game, George Karl mentioned multiple times the need for his guys to rebound and adequately protect the paint against a longer Lakers team. While the Lakers slowly regained control of the glass after a bad opening quarter, Denver accomplished the former, losing the battle of the boards by only one. As for the latter, the Nuggets did a great job packing down on the Lakers inside, frustrating the home team's attempts, too often telegraphed and deliberate, to get the ball inside to players in the post. Taken out of their game, the Lakers also struggled with their outside game, hitting only four of 18 shots from beyond the arc (22 percent). Unable to pull the Nuggets away from the basket, the Lakers never got themselves or the ball moving.
On one level, L.A.'s struggles offensively shouldn't come as that large a surprise. Since moving Anthony, the Nuggets have been one of the league's best defensive teams, averaging just over 95 points allowed in 18 games following the deal. Still, Sunday was hardly a textbook example of how the Lakers can run their offense.
"It's about execution, and it's about getting back into format and playing with a sense of urgency, and plyaing through things that are difficult out there," Jackson said. "Those are all part of the game, and today we didn't do a good job of that."
3. Shannon Brown. Somewhat lost in the team's great run has been more inconsistency from Brown. Sunday was another disappointing day, with only four points in 11 minutes, and more than his share of odd choices. More than anything, Brown is too often returning to the dribble as a default option when he's unsure of what to do, bringing the offensive flow to a halt. Today, he played only 11 minutes, his lowest total in nearly a month.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
If Kobe Bryant could have taken seven fourth quarter shots as wide open as this one, the Lakers probably would have won Sunday afternoon.
"I think I've just got to be more aggressive, it's as simple as that," he said. What exactly that means on the court is a more complicated question. "I'm finding that. I don't want to do something that's too crazy, too detrimental to the team, where we're not on the same page. I've just got to pick my spots."
It's a fine line, one he's not walking as well now relative to earlier in the season.
Add to Brown's off day a 2-for-8 afternoon from Derek Fisher and only two points from Steve Blake, and you're left with an afternoon of low-level production from guards not named Kobe or Bryant.
1. Andrew Bynum. 1:23 into the game, Bynum had four points and a pair of offensive boards, one of which brought him his first bucket. His second basket came on a play where he'd backed Nene so far down on the baseline, Bynum had to step back out into the paint just to dunk the ball. With such a hot start, it seemed like he could be in for a banner game on both sides of the ball. It didn't quite play out that way, but Bynum's performance Sunday was another in a monumentally positive post All-Star run, because while the offense dried up (he'd finish the first half with six points, and the game with eight) Bynum continued to rebound and exert his influence defensively.
He briefly woke up a half-sleeping Staples crowd with an emphatic block of Ty Lawson in the paint late in the first quarter (which he punctuated by getting up the floor faster than I've ever seen him move, though he wasn't rewarded with the ball), then had a nice steal of an entry pass early in the second, leading to points the other way for L.A. When the Nuggets penetrated, Bynum effectively rotated to provide help, but generally did a great job recovering to his man when required.
And all the while, even while rarely seeing the ball offensively, Bynum continued to chew up the glass, finishing the first half with 12 rebounds, grabbing another four in the third for his final total of 16. In the past, when the offense went away, too often Bynum's defensive commitment went with it.
2. Kobe Bryant. Heading into Sunday's game, Bryant had averaged just over 12 trips to the line over his previous five. Sunday, he continued attacking the rack, consistently working off the dribble despite taking a fair amount of punishment inside for his trouble. While it earned him a few bruises, Kobe also was rewarded with nine free throws, of which he converted eight. As his shot chart demonstrates, even when he wasn't all the way to the basket, Bryant was moving in that direction. In the third, he added Wilson Chandler to the list of those victimized by his now patented upfake-step-through baby jumper. Earlier, Bryant, recognizing a mismatch against Raymond Felton, made a great baseline weak-to-strong cut to free himself up for a short jumper.
But for the most part, Bryant's day was about attacking. His first points after the customary early-fourth quarter breather came from blowing past Chandler from the top of the arc for a layup. Games like this encourage Lakers fans for a few reasons. First, good things happen when Kobe moves closer to the basket. Second, it means he has the health and energy to try.
It wasn't all positive, though. Bryant kept working in the fourth, but didn't knock down many shots -- 2-for-7 down the stretch, including five misses in his last six tries, and four straight to end the game. There were definitely some forced shots mixed in with the bunch, but on a day where the Lakers rarely found any offensive rhythm, this sort of thing isn't all that shocking. More than once, his teammates left Bryant with the ball late in possessions, forcing less-than-ideal shots.
Bryant finished with 28 points on 10-of-27 from the floor, plus 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
3. First-Half Defense. After overcoming early problems securing the offensive glass (Denver had six ORBs in the first quarter), the Lakers put together 24 minutes of very good ball on the defensive end. The Nuggets hit only 8 of 23 shots in the opening quarter, and only 5 of 21 in the second. L.A. worked its way to six steals, only 1.4 off its full-game average, and outrebounded the Nuggets by six in the second quarter to finish plus-three on the glass heading into the break. All told, the Lakers held Denver, one of the league's elite scoring teams, to only 40 points.
Given their struggles at the other end through the first half, with a lesser effort defensively their seven-point lead at the half more likely would have been a seven-point deficit. And as the second half demonstrated, the Lakers needed every ounce of that cushion.
4. Pau Gasol. Perhaps the most important thing about Gasol this afternoon is how he came through a scary fall in the third quarter, sending him to the locker room holding his right knee. Fortunately, he was able to return. "It's sore," he said, "but they allowed me to play so hopefully it will be nothing. It seemed to be OK, just like I said it was pretty sore. I jammed my knee pretty good."
Scary moments aside, it was another quietly strong effort from the Spaniard, who hit 7 of 10 from the floor, and added 12 rebounds, making this one of the few games since the break in which both Gasol and Bynum did yeoman's work on the glass. Four turnovers won't cut it, but in an afternoon where no Laker was perfect, Gasol certainly put in a solid day's work.
5. Accountability. No question, Kenyon Martin pushed through Lamar Odom to gain a critical ORB and putback in the final seconds, essentially icing the game for Denver. To his credit, Odom refused to complain, instead pointing the finger back at himself and his teammates. "We had a chance to get back in the game. Me and Ron have been playing basketball all of our life -- we didn't communicate on that. We're supposed to squeeze him. Me and Ron, we've been playing ball so long we're supposed to communicate, squeeze him, and have a chance to take the game into overtime."
But Martin did put his hands in your back, right?
"I'm not going to expect the ref to make a call right there," Odom said.
Bryant agreed, calling the play a "no call."
Not that I expected anything else, but it's nice to see the Lakers looking past opportunities to make excuses.