Despite a drastically improved performance from the Nuggets, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers would not be denied at home in Game 2, outlasting some late Denver runs to take a 2-0 lead on the series in a 104-100 victory. George Karl and the Nuggets know they can compete with LA now, but it might be too little, too late, even with the series shifting back to Denver.
So far a few key factors have become clear. Unless any of the following things change, the Nuggets can’t win the series and could possibly exit the postseason without a single victory:
1) Kobe Bryant has been able to exert his will and dominate the Nuggets’ defense, shooting almost 49 percent from the floor in two games. He’s dropped 31 and 38 so far and Arron Afflalo hasn’t been able to bother him or disrupt his shot enough. Stopping Kobe during the postseason is next to impossible; but if the Nuggets can’t play more physical with him and make him miss more shots, he will continue to put up 30+ points a night.
2) Andrew Bynum has been a huge problem for Denver’s defense and offense so far. In Game 2, Kobe dropped 38, which usually would indicate that his teammates scored a lot less. But Bynum actually finished with 27 points. Kobe and Bynum shot more than 50 percent of LA’s shots and combined for more than half of their points. Bynum has challenged shots at the rim and although Lawson had a much improved offensive game, the Nuggets’ offensive struggles are a testament to his (and Pau Gasol’s) interior size and shot-blocking ability.
3) Arron Afflalo has yet to show up and play a good game from start to finish. Aside from being unable to challenge Kobe on the defensive end, Afflalo has failed to live up to the quality shooting guard he had become by the end of the season. Afflalo is only putting up 10.0 points a game after averaging 18.7 in the month of April. If his shooting struggles continue for Games 3 and 4 in Denver, LA will end this series in five games (at least).
These have been the three major factors in the series so far. You could bring up Andre Miller playing well in Game 1 and then not scoring in Game 2 and you could also point out how the Lakers got way more production out of their bench than anyone anticipated in the playoff opener. But the fact is, if Denver had competed in Game 1 like they did in Game 2, they might have been able to grab a win on the road at Staples Center. But after being obliterated in Game 1 and then falling short in Game 2, the message has been sent that Denver just can’t hang with this team. Between Kobe Bryant and the Lakers’ size advantage, the Nuggets just don’t pose as much of a threat as I anticipated. Even when LA’s role players didn’t do much in Game 2, the Lake Show was still too much to handle: Ramon Sessions was scoring (14 points), Pau Gasol came close to a triple double (for the second consecutive game), and, of course, Kobe and Bynum were unstoppable.
Denver might get a win at home to extend the series an extra game or two, but if Los Angeles wins Game 3, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sweep. I’ve got to think George Karl and his squad are too resilient to let that happen and they might come close to tying the series up at home, but as is the case with any balanced team, everyone has to come ready to play every single game. When the Lakers’ talented starting five are playing the majority of the game, a team with depth and balanced scoring only becomes an advantage if guys can come in and play at a consistently high level. So far, there have been too many inconsistencies and the Lakers have taken advantage of them.
Don’t get me wrong; Denver has a promising future and I’ve been extremely impressed with rookie Kenneth Faried; another year or two of development and this guy could become a star to complement Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari. But the Nugget no-show in Game 1 absolutely killed them and gave them the near-impossible task of rebounding for a win in Game 2. Even though Gallinari and Corey Brewer have played well so far and held up their end of the bargain, Faried is too young, Lawson is too small and the Nuggets are too thinly spread out to have much hope in advancing against this Lakers powerhouse. Unless Denver can find a way to tie the series up at home, LA will move on to the second round.