HoopsHabit – Grading The Denver Nuggets’ Offseason

The Denver Nuggets have cleaned house this offseason, losing coaches, front office personnel and key starters and role players. Here’s my HoopsHabit article grading some of their offseason moves

HoopsHabit – Can The Denver Nuggets Contend In The West In 2013-14?

They’ve lost their head coach, GM and are in danger of losing two critical free agents in Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer. Here’s my HoopsHabit article with a look ahead to next season and what to expect from the Denver Nuggets

HoopsHabit – “How The Golden State Warriors Have Won Without David Lee”

Pulling a typical George Karl In The Playoffs move, the Denver Nuggets fell to the No. 6 Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry’s monster third quarter performances. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on how the Warriors were able to win without David Lee

Nuggets Obliterate Lakers In Game 6

Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets wasted no time in showing the Lakers they meant business in Game 6, which quickly turned into a complete rout of an ill Kobe Bryant and the complacent Los Angeles Lakers. After starting the game on a 13-0 run, the Nuggets never looked back, taking care of business at home with a 113-96 victory and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in LA on Saturday.

Lawson led the Nuggets with 32 points, six assists and five rebounds, shooting 5-of-6 from downtown. Kenneth Faried had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Corey Brewer had 18 points off the bench, Danilo Gallinari finished with 12 points and seven rebounds and Andre Miller backed up his terrific Game 5 performance with a 12-point effort in Game 6. And although Arron Afflalo only had six points and JaVale McGee only had two, Timofey Mozgov not only continued his excellent defense on Andrew Bynum, but he even pitched in eight points as well. It was as close to a perfect effort as Denver can conjure up, but that’s the way it looked at the end of Game 5 too. For the Lakers, the only player really worth mentioning was Kobe Bryant, who scored 31 points while playing with a stomach virus (Quick side note: Do NOT compare this game to Michael Jordan’s Flu Game. This was against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and his team lost by about 20. MJ’s legendary performance was in the NBA Finals against Stockton and Malone and his team won thanks to that incredible performance. The two aren’t even remotely close). Ramon Sessions was LA’s second leading scorer with 14 points. Andrew Bynum had another underwhelming night with 11 points and 16 rebounds while Pau Gasol disappeared completely with just three points and three rebounds on 1-of-10 shooting.

Ty Lawson started out hot and put the Lakers away early. If the Nuggets have another fast start in LA, the Lakers could be in trouble.

At the start of the playoffs, I predicted Denver would give Los Angeles all they could handle, but I picked the Lakers to win the series in six games. I said the Lakers’ size would overwhelm the Nuggets’ bigs and that stopping Kobe, Bynum and Gasol over the course of a seven game series would be too much for the balanced Nuggets. It seems as though I (and everyone else in the NBA analyst department) underestimated just how effective Denver’s depth and frontcourt defense could be; despite dropping the first two games, the Nuggets have roared back in this series and now carry all the momentum and confidence into Game 7. The Lakers will benefit from having a rocking Staples Center trying to rouse them out of their apparent apathy (everyone except Kobe, that is). They will also be getting Ron Artest back after missing the last seven games (for his ludicrous elbow on Sixth Man of the Year James Harden). But after the effort we’ve seen from this Los Angeles squad in the past few games and because Artest will likely be rusty, it’s hard to pick against the Denver Nuggets.

Kobe is the only guy in purple and yellow who looks like he wants it. Bynum has allowed himself to be taken out of the series and instead of reasserting himself with a dominant performance, he’s completely faded out of the picture. Credit Mozgov, Faried and McGee for their aggressive and physical defense on him, but Bynum was the best active center in the league coming into the playoffs, and his effort and performance since dropping a triple double in Game 1 has been absolutely disappointing. But as bad as Bynum has been, Pau Gasol has been completely appalling. Game 6 will be the one that truly reveals how absent Gasol has been, but the truth is, he hasn’t had an impact on a single game in this series. Gasol is the Lakers’ third most important player and without him scoring, the Nuggets can focus all their attention on shutting Bynum down. Gasol has phased himself out, missing easy shots and being pushed around by Denver’s motivated post players. Unless Gasol and Bynum completely turn things around in Game 7, the Lakers will become just the ninth team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-1. Now I’m not fully predicting Denver will win Game 7 on the road against the uber-competitive Kobe Bryant. Kobe has time to rest up and prepare for an elimination game, and you know he’ll be doing everything he can to motivate his teammates, which will make them dangerous in front of their home crowd. No doubt, the Nuggets still have their work cut out for them. But as lethal as Kobe can be, this series may be out of his control if his teammates fail to show up again. And do you know who the last team was to lose a series after leading 3-1? The Los Angeles Lakers.

Kobe Bryant has done all he can do in this series, but his teammates don’t seem to share his motivation.

LA Steals Game 4 On The Road

Denver was poised to even the series up at two games apiece and head back to LA with a renewed sense of hope, but an unlikely hero emerged and the Lakers stole Game 4 with a 92-88 win on the road. Los Angeles now leads the series 3-1 and will look to send this balanced Nuggets team home with a win at Staples Center in Game 5 tomorrow night. With Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol all on the floor, everyone thought one of these guys would provide the dagger as the audience felt the game start to slip away from Denver. But in the end, it turned out to be none other than Steve Blake who decimated the Nuggets’ chances in the game and possibly the whole series.

Kobe led LA with 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists, Bynum had 19 points and seven rebounds and Gasol finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists. But it was Blake’s 10 points off the bench, which included the 3-pointer that put the Lakers ahead by six with 18 seconds left, that proved to be Denver’s undoing. It was Jordan Hill’s 12 points and 11 rebounds that kept the Lakers from being overwhelmed by Denver’s depth. And even though the Nuggets’ bench still outscored LA’s, the fact that the Lakers’ supporting cast even contributed gave them the upper hand.

If you had said before Game 4 that Steve Blake would be the difference, would anyone have believed you?

Denver did a good job of containing Andrew Bynum again, using double teams to get the ball out of his hands. Kobe had an all-around great game, but the Nuggets were able to prevent him from going off in the scoring column by holding him to just 10-of-25 shooting. But their lack of offensive production from some of the guys who gave Denver a Game 3 victory eventually hurt them, especially when Blake and Hill started making shots. Ty Lawson, who had a stellar performance in the Nuggets’ first game at home, finished with just 11 points. Kenneth Faried had just six points and seven rebounds. JaVale McGee, who was a hero in Game 3 for guarding Bynum and still finding energy on the offensive end, could only tally eight points and four rebounds after getting tired early in the second half. Al Harrington struggled with his shot and missed a few big 3-pointers. And Arron Afflalo, who seems like he won’t show up in time for the end of the playoffs this year, could only muster six points. Danilo Gallinari finally had an efficient shooting night, leading the Nuggets with 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but he only got significant help from Andre Miller, who had 15 points off the bench.

A few key plays killed Denver down the stretch, but the Lakers earned the victory and the Nuggets didn’t have what it took to prevent a crucial Game 4 from slipping through their fingers. Gallinari getting laid out on a clean pick by Gasol led to a wide open 3-pointer for Ramon Sessions that put LA up by three, which proved to be insurmountable and was an extremely unfortunate break for the Nuggets (Gallo looked like he flopped, but Gasol did raise his shoulders and pop him in the throat. But then again, the pick was definitely clean and didn’t warrant a foul call. This debate could go on and on so we’re just going to chalk it up to a bad break for Denver/good play by the Lakers and leave it at that). Whatever the case, Denver couldn’t get the job done and will go home sooner than expected unless they somehow win Game 5 in LA against the cold-blooded killer and closer that is Kobe Bryant. This would require an inordinate amount of team chemistry, improved shooting, no production from LA’s bench and similarly stifling defense on both Kobe and Bynum. This is a tall order, but it should be worth watching if George Karl can rally his balanced team to keep this series competitive.

Danilo Gallinari led the Nuggets with 20, but his absence on a key play with less than a minute to go ultimately killed his team.

Lakers Take Care of Business

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).

Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum are Denver’s main problems, as they have been dominant in the first two games of this series.

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.

Denver has no chance unless Arron Afflalo shows up to play.

LA Block Party

The Lakers started the postseason off on a strong note with a convincing 103-88 win over the visiting Denver Nuggets in Game 1. LA has been on upset alert since the Western playoff matchups were determined, but Kobe Bryant and company left no doubt that the Nuggets will need to bring everything they’ve got to have a chance in this series.

Kobe finished with 31 points, but most of them came in garbage time. In fact, for the majority of the game, Denver did an adequate job of keeping him contained. So where did the Nuggets go wrong? Well, allowing guys like Steve Blake and Devin Evanks to score nine and 12 (respectively) by halftime is a bad start. Jordan Hill had 10 points as well. Andrew Bynum dropped a triple double, but his 10 blocks were the biggest part of that statline as he completely clogged up the middle. However, the worst part was Denver’s defense allowed all this to happen while Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, who both had been playing lights out coming into the postseason, each shot 3-for-11 from the floor (6-for-22 combined). That can’t happen if Denver wants to contend in this series.

Andrew Bynum prevented Ty Lawson and the Nuggets from getting their offense going at the rim.

LA definitely had everything going their way. Kobe dropped his expected 20-30+ points, Bynum and Pau Gasol did their thing down in the paint and Ramon Sessions and the bench contributed a perfectly appropriate amount with Ron Artest sitting out. Kenneth Faried had a hard time getting shots up and Lawson couldn’t even come close because of Bynum’s presence in the middle, which was directly connected to his poor shooting night.

There are only two bright spots for Denver after such a one-sided defeat. The first is that Danilo Gallinari played well and finished with 19 points. If the Nuggets are going to keep the series close, they need Gallo to score like he did. The second positive note is that Denver’s bench showed their worth and pitched in some buckets to keep this one from being a complete blowout. Andre Miller, Corey Brewer and Al Harrington played fine and finished with a combined 33 points off the bench. Unfortunately, it was Denver’s starting lineup that didn’t get the job done today.

That being said, Denver really has to enter Game 2 with a sense of urgency and get a road win to have a chance for the upset. The Lakers smell blood in the water after such an easy victory and Kobe Bryant is a cold-hearted killer. Unless Lawson and Afflalo regroup and play lights out in Game 2, this balanced Nuggets squad might fall short of their playoff potential before anybody even gets a chance to see it.

Danilo Gallinari is one of the few bright spots Denver can take into Game 2.