George Karl loves having his players make immediate decisions after they catch the ball, whether it is to drive, pass or shoot. He wants the ball moving quickly, which forces the defense to move with it and ultimately opens up lanes for his talented players to exploit. But the irony he is forced to face is that his top two players are considered to be among the biggest ball-stoppers in the NBA. Standing and holding the rock (as Carmelo Anthony often does) and lateral dribbling (as Allen Iverson is known to do) allow the defense to consistently reset and re-orient toward the main threats.
When the Nuggets move the ball, they can light up any defense. When Melo or AI stops the ball, sometimes their talent is enough to find a way to win. But for Denver in the playoffs, especially against the No. 1 seed and well-prepared Lakers, holding the ball has added up to lots of horrible shots and three losses. The Nuggets are now faced with a potential sweep, an all-but-certain first-round loss and possibly the end of the short-lived combination of their two star players.
Los Angeles has certainly made it difficult for Melo to get buckets. He always has to deal with his own defender -- often the tall and long Vladimir Radmanovic, who has played him straight up (mostly) and invited him to shoot perimeter shots. But the Lakers also have pulled Derek Fisher toward him, allowing Fisher to swipe at his dribbles or clog up any middle drives. Plus, to further cut off Melo's angles to the basket, the Lakers have dragged Lamar Odom over to the same "box" Melo is in.
These tactics would be risky maneuvers if the Nuggets would employ some quick, "swing, swing" passing action, which could end up with a dunk, interior foul or a wide-open 3-point shot in the opposite corner. But the Lakers counted on Melo holding, reading and then either shooting or driving into the teeth of the defense. His catching and squaring without passing killed any chances for him or his team to get easy looks. Melo finished Game 3 with 5-for-22 shooting and is now 24-for-68 for the series. Iverson shot 5-for-16 and is 26-for-61 in the three games. The rest of the Nuggets, who feed off of these two, went 22-for-48 in Game 3. Imagine if they got 68 shots. George Karl is thinking about that right now.
Because of AI's ability to finish against guards and wings, the Lakers challenged their bigs to make things difficult on him. The Spurs employed a similar strategy against Iverson last season, to great success. Iverson is still an incredible athlete and as relentless as ever, but he's not very good at finishing over guys like Odom and Pau Gasol. Those two guys have mostly ignored their own men, allowing Kenyon Martin to finish 6-for-11 -- including some incredible dunks that should have energized every Nugget player and fan in the building. Marcus Camby, who likes to get some shots each half and thus feel a part of the offensive end of the floor, didn't get many looks, going 0-for-2 for the game. There is no more telling statistic than AI and Melo combining for four total assists in Game 3 -- half the number Kobe dished out himself.
Denver's effort on defense was adequate for awhile, as they were shading off of guys like Odom and Fisher and forcing Kobe to look at numerous white jerseys in his path to the basket. But players who get shut out of their offense tend to lose interest on defense, and so it went for the Nuggets. They again did a fine job in transition, making the Lakers work harder than they had to in Game 1. But Denver's attention to detail was poor throughout the game: the Nuggets gave up easy baskets on simple initial actions, like a back screen involving Melo and Camby's men. L.A. seemed content to run its triangle, trying to make easy plays every time down and focusing on not turning the ball over (eight turnovers for the game). Denver didn't do anything to shake the Lakers out of their rhythm.
Of the 16 playoff teams, no single team has been more disappointing or has played worse than the Nuggets. They were horribly disinterested in defending in Game 1. Then in Game 3, they were incredibly unwilling to move the ball quickly against a well-prepared defense. Once again, the postseason has been a nightmare for this group of talented individuals. But it should be over soon.
PREDICTION: Lakers win Game 4
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.