On the bright side, the Nuggets were the only professional basketball team — in fact, the only professional sports team — to be mentioned at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington.
Jimmy Kimmel, the evening’s entertainment, noted the one-year anniversary of the secret mission to get Osama bin Laden, then speculated who might be next:
“Right now, Navy SEAL Team six is outside the Kardashian compound in Beverly Hills disguised as the Denver Nuggets so they can sneak in undetected,” he said. It was not his biggest laugh line of the night.
Anonymous as they may be to fashionable Angelinos such as Kimmel, the Nuggets, alas, were detected all too readily when they arrived at the Staples Center, just down the road from Beverly Hills, on Sunday afternoon to begin their first-round playoff series. The Lakers were ready and waiting. They blocked an astonishing fifteen of Denver’s ninety shots, including a playoff record-tying ten by center Andrew Bynum. Even the final score, 103-88, understated the Lakers’ dominance. Bynum finished with a triple double (ten points, ten blocks, thirteen rebounds) and his fellow seven-footer, forward Pau Gasol, was two rebounds and two assists short of matching the feat.
The Nuggets do two things extremely well, and the Lakers were ready for both of them. They run and they get to the rim. On Sunday, when they ran they found the Lakers waiting for them. And when they got to the rim, their shot attempts were swatted away with annoying regularity.
“We’ve got to adjust a little bit for the second game,” said Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari, who led the visitors with nineteen points. “We’ve got to change something.”
If this sounds familiar, it should. The Nuggets are now facing approximately the same problem they face almost every year at this time: The tactics that work so well for them during the regular season, outrunning and outscoring opponents, suddenly stop working. Given time to prepare, their playoff opponents emphasize getting back on defense and limiting the Nuggets’ opportunities to play in the open court. After leading the league in scoring at 104.1 points per game this season, the Nuggets were held to sixteen points below their average in Game 1.
They also permitted the Lakers to make half their shots, meaning they were taking the ball out of the basket half the time, which is not a good way to start the fast break. Point guard Ty Lawson, their leading scorer during the regular season with an average of 16.4 points per game, had just seven.
A week ago, when coach George Karl appeared on the Dave Logan Show, I asked him about the Lakers as a potential playoff opponent.
“The Lakers give everybody in the West a different matchup than every other team,” Karl said then. “They’re big. They play a power game, they play an inside game, which is so unusual in our game today, with Bynum and Gasol and Kobe (Bryant) on the perimeter. That would be a fun challenge. It would make us probably a better basketball team if we played the Lakers and figured out how to beat them because our big guys have come a long way this year, but giving them the test to beat the Lakers in the playoffs would be a tremendous final exam.”
It’s a good thing Game 1 didn’t determine the final grade.
The Nuggets are one of the few teams in the NBA capable of matching up with the Lakers’ size. They have three seven-footers of their own in Kosta Koufos, JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov. The problem is the Nuggets’ big men are not anywhere near as skilled as Bynum and Gasol. Sunday, Karl didn’t even try to match the Lakers’ size. The three Nuggets seven-footers played a combined thirty-seven minutes. Bynum and Gasol played seventy.
Rookie Kenneth Faried, listed generously at 6-8, got the lion’s share of Denver’s minutes at power forward, meaning the Nuggets looked very small against L.A.’s twin towers. Lakers coach Mike Brown deployed basically a zone defense down low, with Bynum retreating to the paint whether the player he was nominally guarding was there or not. Karl claimed he should have been called for about thirty illegal defenses. In theory, defensive three seconds should be called when a defender is in the paint at least that long without actually guarding anyone. In practice, it’s seldom called more than once or twice a game.
Informed afterward that Karl had made the complaint, Bryant smirked. “Of course he did,” he said.
“We’ve got to find a way to score the ball before (Bynum) gets to the paint because once he gets to the paint, he’s a big presence inside,” Gallinari said.
There is a tendency after the first game of a playoff series to believe that absent major changes in strategy, every game will go the way that one did, which is seldom the case. Lawson is bound to play better than he did Sunday, and the Lakers’ role players — Jordan Hill, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks and Ramon Sessions — are unlikely to play as well.
Still, the Nuggets would do well not to serve up their shots to Bynum on a silver tray the way they did Sunday. If the Lakers’ center continues to frustrate their efforts to get to the rim, they’ll need a Plan B. Their shooters are not good enough to win the series from long distance. Generally, the best way to neutralize a shot-blocker is to go right at his chest, getting him into foul trouble, or drive toward him and and kick the ball to open teammates.
“I’m not going to criticize my team, but the start was disappointing,” said Karl, whose squad was outscored by thirteen points in the first quarter and by only two the rest of the way. “The start was too NBA regular season-oriented and not NBA playoff-oriented. We were kind of in cruise control trying to pick and choose, figure out what we’re going to do instead of just going at people. I thought we gave them seven, eight minutes of basketball where we weren’t aggressive and assertive. But there’s a lot of guys that haven’t been out there before, haven’t played a lot of playoff games.”
The second-youngest team in the postseason tournament, maybe the Nuggets will grow into the series. Maybe their young big men will give the Lakers’ bigs more competition. Maybe Lawson will rediscover the elusiveness that frustrated NBA defenses for much of the regular season.
This much we learned from Game 1: If the Nuggets hope to make the series competitive, they will have to do a better job of avoiding the Lakers’ goaltender.