After losing two of their past three games, the Lakers needed a strong effort if they had any chance of defeating the Nuggets in Denver. Entering last night’s game, the Nuggets were 19-4 at the Pepsi Center. After a very evenly played first half, the Lakers used a third-quarter boost from Kobe Bryant to coast to 107-97 victory. The following were keys to the Lakers’ victory:
Black Mamba Waited to Strike
During the Lakers’ struggles earlier this season, it was obvious that Kobe Bryant was pressing and forcing the issue. He started games by shooting, kept shooting throughout, and finished the game shooting. There was no balance on the offensive end. Sure, part of the reason was because his teammates were playing lifeless basketball; but another part was just New Kobe reverting back to Old Kobe. Last night, the Lakers and Kobe got back to what won them the past two championships: a balanced effort by all players with one scoring outburst from Kobe Bryant mixed in somewhere along the line. That outburst came in the third quarter.
While the Nuggets led 52-49 at halftime, Kobe only scored 4 points on 4 shot attempts up to that point. With the game a back-and-forth affair through two quarters, Kobe knew the third quarter was his for the taking. So he took it. With a dizzying array of pump fakes, bank shots, and fade-away jumpers, Kobe emphatically put his stamp on the game. My two favorite parts of his blitzkrieg were one possession during which he threw three consecutive pump fakes at J.R. Smith, the third of which baited Smith into the air for the foul, and another play during which he completely murdered Smith in the post by bullying his way deeper and deeper until he finally decided to drop step and throw a shot off the glass for the deuce. The third quarter was classic Kobe Bryant clinic and was the difference in the game.
Artest Outplayed Melo
With all the rumors of a trade involving Carmelo Anthony swirling about, most of us could foresee Melo having a subpar performance against a stronger Lakers squad. That being said, none of us envisioned that Artest would outplay the talented Nuggets star. Don’t read too much into Melo’s 23 points because some of those came when game was clearly out of reach. Do, however, notice that Melo had to take 24 shots to score those 23 points; his poor efficiency on the night was a product of two things. First, Melo is statistically one of the least efficient of the major scorers in the league. But second, and more importantly, Artest played great defense last night. He routinely forced Melo into off balanced and contested shots (and he blocked 2, as well). It’s not always about stopping the opposing scorer; rather, it’s about making the night difficult for him. And that’s exactly what Artest did.
On the offensive end, Artest was a source of points and energy from which the Lakers benefited. He scored 19 points on a very efficient 8-of-12 and his two rebounds happened to be huge back-to-back offensive rebounds down the stretch that allowed the Lakers to drain precious seconds off the clock. He was aggressive on both ends all night and it was great to see Artest play at a high level.
The Lakers’ length greatly affected this game. Gasol, Odom, and Bynum dominated the paint en route to a collective 54 points, 30 rebounds, and 2 blocks. On the flip side, the Denver big men–Kenyon Martin, Nene, and Al Harrington–combined for only 16 points, 13 rebounds, and 0 blocks. It was clear who controlled the inside in this game.
Defending Dribble Penetration
If I could pick on any two things in this victory, dribble penetration defense would be one. The Lakers have trouble with quick and aggressive guards, and Ty Lawson exposed that weakness last night. Lawson weaved through the defense multiple times on his way to 15 points (6-of-9 FG) and 4 assists. None of the Lakers guards were able to contain him.
Defending the Long Ball
And the other thing I would pick on is three-point defense. The long ball killed the Lakers in their loss to the Mavericks earlier this week, and the long ball is what kept the Nuggets around for so long in this contest. Specifically, Arron Afflalo killed the Lakers from deep. Afflalo hit 5 of 7 threes (8 of 11 overall) to dump 22 points on the defending champs. As a team, Denver hit 7 of 21 treys. The Lakers need to work on defensive rotation so that they can contest every three-point attempt.
It was a great win for the Lakers, especially considering it came 1) came on the road and 2) came on the heels of a tough loss to the Mavericks. They are off until Tuesday when they come home to face the Jazz. I am anxious to see how the Lakers defend dynamic point guard Deron Williams.