Not counting Atlanta-Boston, there are two series, both in the Western Conference, where the lower-seeded team had the superior point differential during the regular season. That the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies qualify is little surprise given the two teams battled for home-court advantage through the final hours of the schedule. That the Denver Nuggets outperformed the Los Angeles Lakers by differential is a bit more unexpected, as the Lakers won three more games and won the Pacific Division while the Nuggets' playoff spot wasn't secure until last week.
The difference between the two teams can largely be explained by the Lakers' ability to win close games. They went 20-8 this season in games decided by five points or fewer, getting a series of clutch shots from Kobe Bryant, a trend that culminated in last Sunday's double-OT win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Whether the Lakers will win this series may depend on their ability to repeat the feat in the postseason.
WHEN THE LAKERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.2 possessions per 48 minutes (20th NBA)
L.A. Lakers Offensive Rating: 107.6 points per 100 possessions (10th NBA)
Denver Defensive Rating: 107.7 points per 100 possessions (19th NBA)
The notion of starting a discussion of the Lakers offense with anyone but Bryant seems unthinkable, yet Andrew Bynum was more crucial to their attack against Denver. In four head-to-head meetings, three of them Laker wins, Bynum averaged 24.8 points on 66.1 percent shooting. The center matchup changed midseason when the Nuggets traded Nene for JaVale McGee, of course. That did little to change Bynum's output in the most recent meeting on April 13. With Bryant out of the lineup, he scored 30 points on 11-of-19 shooting against a combination of McGee (28 minutes), Timofey Mozgov (12) and Kosta Koufos (8).
With his incredible wingspan, McGee can bother Bynum's shots. However, he lacks the strength to keep Bynum from establishing good position in the post. In the other meeting between the two players, before McGee was traded, Bynum made six of his eight shots en route to 19 points, though he did turn the ball over seven times.
L.A.'s powerful frontcourt of Bynum and Pau Gasol makes it challenging for Denver to play the kind of small lineups George Karl tends to prefer. Hence the possibility of regular action for Mozgov, who has played sparingly over the last month. In that sense, Bynum's post presence could be just as valuable at the other end of the floor because it means fewer minutes for potent lineups with Al Harrington in the middle.
Because of Bynum's matchup advantage, Gasol has taken a backseat against the Nuggets this season, though he's averaged a double-double on 54.2 percent from the field. He too figures to have a matchup advantage over rookie Kenneth Faried, who has a knack for highlight-reel defensive plays but can wander away from the ball. The Lakers will want to put Faried in pick-and-rolls with Gasol and Ramon Sessions at times to test him and take advantage of Sessions' playmaking ability.
Denver did do a terrific job of defending Bryant in the three head-to-head matchups he played in during the regular season. Working primarily against Arron Afflalo, but also the bigger Danilo Gallinari at times, Bryant shot 19 of 69 from the field (27.5 percent) and 2 of 19 beyond the arc. Afflalo's reputation as a stopper generally has limited statistical support, but his physical style has a lengthy track record of success against Bryant, who has shot 37.6 percent against Afflalo's teams in his career per Basketball-Reference.com. Karl also has the length of Corey Brewer as an option against Bryant.
Over the course of the series, it's worth watching how aggressively Karl uses double-teams and traps against the Lakers' stars. With Sessions and either Devin Ebanks or Matt Barnes on the court alongside them much of the time, the Lakers are short on shooting. Ebanks has improved his perimeter marksmanship and Barnes was a perfect 4-of-4 from beyond the arc in the last meeting, scoring 24 points, but given the choice Denver would surely prefer to put the game in their hands.
WHEN DENVER HAS THE BALL
Pace: 92.8 possessions per 48 minutes (2nd NBA)
Denver Offensive Rating: 110.9 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA)
L.A. Lakers Defensive Rating: 105.9 points per 100 possessions (13th NBA)
The Nuggets' efficient attack comes into the postseason clicking, having averaged 116.0 points per 100 possessions in the month of April--good for second in the league behind San Antonio, per NBA.com/Stats. While some of those performances can be discounted because of the opposition--two games apiece against Minnesota and Golden State, as well as two against the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic--Denver also won shootouts in the final week of the regular season at Phoenix and Oklahoma City.
The Nuggets have naturally been at their best with a healthy Gallinari in their lineup. Gallinari has maintained a solid .563 True Shooting Percentage while increasing his involvement in the offense, and could be better in the playoffs if he snaps out of a slump from beyond the arc. The Lakers shut Gallinari down, holding him to 10.0 points on 28.3 percent shooting. Metta World Peace's physical defense may have had something to do with that, though according to NBA.com/Stats he shot even worse (22 percent) against the Lakers when World Peace was on the bench. Barnes and Ebanks are quality defenders in their own right and have the length to match up with Gallinari.
On paper, Ty Lawson against the Lakers' defensively challenged point guards is the best matchup for Denver. In practice, he wasn't particularly effective in the four games, averaging 12.3 points on 40.0 percent shooting, though he did hand out 7.5 assists per game. Bynum's size in the paint could cause Lawson trouble when he is able to penetrate.
Instead, the Nuggets' veteran reserves carried their offense against the Lakers, with Al Harrington and Andre Miller combining for 34.1 points per game. Karl has an interesting decision with how to use Harrington, the team's leading scorer versus L.A. Three of those four games came before Faried established himself as the starter, and he did not play in any of them. During the most recent meeting, Faried played 18 minutes with Harrington coming off the bench for 27. Though Harrington can't defend Bynum in the post, he's savvy enough to hold his own against Gasol and creates problems for the Lakers' bigs with his ability to play on the perimeter.
Miller will have a quickness advantage most of the time against either the Lakers' point guards or when matched against Barnes and Ebanks playing shooting guard behind Bryant. He shot 54.5 percent during the regular season versus the Lakers. McGee also contributed on offense during the last meeting, grabbing six offensive rebounds and making seven of his nine shot attempts to score 14 points.
Fittingly, the Lakers won the season series with the Nuggets 3-1 despite a four-point aggregate differential between the teams. The Lakers came up with wins by three, four and six points, including wriggling off the hook on New Year's Eve when Gallinari missed an uncontested layup that would have tied the game in the closing seconds. All four games were decided by single-digits and there's no reason to expect anything else in this series. So, how predictive is the Lakers' ability to win close games during the regular season? In the past, we've seen the same "skill" desert the Dallas Mavericks in the postseason--until last year, when they rode their clutch performance all the way to a championship. So I could certainly see this one going either way. Call it a tossup, in which case I'd prefer to buck conventional wisdom.
Denver in 6
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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