Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

May 22, 2009

Playoff Prospectus: Nuggets get even

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 2:03 pm

Denver 106, L.A. Lakers 103 (Series tied 1-0)

Pace: 91.5

Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 112.5, Denver 115.8

If the Nuggets didn’t have the Lakers’ attention before, you can bet your bottom dollar they do now.

In a game as much of statistical stalemate as you’re ever going to find, Denver evened the Western Conference finals by turning up the defensive heat on Kobe Bryant and taking advantage of some good fortune down the stretch. Bryant was efficient, scoring 32 points on 20 shots, but used only 24 possessions, down seven from Game One. The Nuggets threw a variety of looks and defenders at Bryant, mixing Dahntay Jones, Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony at various times, and did a good job of forcing Kobe to give up the ball—or denying it from him in the first place.

As mentioned, the teams’ statistical lines were barely distinguishable from each other. In the first game, the Nuggets had 11 more free-throw attempts than L.A., but missed 12 times from the charity stripe, a crucial lapse in the two-point loss. The Lakers, meanwhile, enjoyed a 17-7 edge on the offensive glass (36% to 19%) and shot 11-of-25 from beyond the arc. In Game Two, both teams visited the foul line frequently (37 FTA for Denver, 35 for L.A.) but the Nuggets closed the gap on the boards, as each team grabbed 32% of its own misses.

There were two ways George Karl’s crew could have taken the tough loss in Game One. They could have looked at it as, “Hey, we can beat these guys.” They could have also have felt, even if only in their collective subconscious, that they’d be chasing that missed opportunity the whole series. There may have been a bit of a hangover, because Denver came out seemingly unable to dig in with the same effort they proffered on Tuesday. The Lakers jumped out to a double-digit advantage and held it for most of the first half.  The Lakers were getting too many easy shots at the basket and Denver was taking too forced many perimeter shots.

Midway through the second quarter, ESPN aired a clip of Karl in the huddle. Karl reminded his squad that they are an aggressive, take-it-to-the-basket team. “That’s who you are,” he said and, indeed, the Nuggets posted the NBA’s best offensive foul rate during the regular season. Anthony took Karl’s words to heart and began to drive to the basket with abandon. He finished the game with 14 free-throw attempts and continues to play the best basketball of his career. In fact, according to my WP82 metric (wins produced per 82 games), Anthony is second of all players in the playoffs at 14.7. (Teammate Billups is third at 13.9. Both trail LeBron James’ astounding figure of 27.2.)

Subsequent to that timeout, Karl also found a combination that worked extremely well. He brought Linas Kleiza in to play the four position, which opened up driving lanes for Anthony and Billups (16 free-throw attempts), a fact noted by analyst Jeff Van Gundy a couple of times. The score was 51-38 when Kleiza came into the game. He had 11 points and eight boards in the first half and the Nuggets outscored L.A. 16-4 to close the first half. For the game, Kleiza scored 16 points and had a game-best plus-minus of +16.

There was a play toward the first half that illustrated just how smart Billups is as a basketball player. With Denver taking the ball out of bounds under its own basket, Bryant elected to turn his back to Billups and help on whoever took the inbounds pass. Billups threw the ball off of Bryant’s back, got both feet in bounds to re-establish himself, and scored on a layup. That was a stark example of how quick Billups is to recognize and react to defensive schemes, as good as any player in the league in that regard. The real question I had was whether Billups got credit for an assist for passing to himself. He didn’t, but I think he should have. Why can’t you assist yourself? Isn’t there an entire industry built on self-help concepts?

After an even third quarter, the Nuggets’ defense began the fourth quarter by forcing the Lakers into a string things they didn’t really want to do, including a long jumper by Pau Gasol and a Bryant charge when he attempted to pass out of a a double team on the move. The Nuggets edged up by seven with just under nine minutes to play, but Bryant, who’d been catching a breather, re-entered and nailed a three-pointer. That sparked a 9-0 run by L.A., which was also aided by some big minutes from Shannon Brown. With Sasha Vujacic (0-of-4 on Thursday) continuing to struggle, Brown has emerged as the Lakers’ best offensive option opposite Bryant.

As mentioned, the Nuggets got a little bit lucky down the stretch. Billups drove into the crowded lane with about 30 seconds left and flung the ball out to the perimeter. Nene had been trailing the play and was able to chase down the errant ball and fed Kenyon Martin for a layup that put Denver up 103-101. On the next possession, Billups and Nene blitzed Bryant on a pick-and-roll, with Gasol setting the screen. The ball kicked loose in the congestion and Gasol tied up Billups.

That should have been an easy tip for Gasol, but on the toss, Denver’s J.R. Smith darted across the jump circle while the ball was in the air. The ball was knocked loose, Billups came up with it and sank one of two free throws to put the Nuggets up by three. It’s beyond my understanding how three officials could miss a man running through the circle on a jump ball, but to Smith’s credit, it he got away with it. The Nuggets did a good job of denying Bryant the ball on the final possession and Derek Fisher threw up an airball three-pointer at the buzzer.

Looking ahead, the Nuggets only have to look back at the Lakers’ last series to see that gaining the split in L.A. is no guarantee, not against the NBA’s best road team. This is the Nuggets’ third trip ever to the Western Conference finals. In 1978, they split the first two games at home against the Sonics, then went to Seattle and lost two straight to fall into a 3-1 hole. In 1985, the Nuggets split in L.A., but went back to Denver was blown out in Game Three and lost a tight Game Four. So the Nuggets are looking for their first-ever lead in conference final.

In many ways, Game Three is the series fulcrum. Will we still get that Kobe vs. LeBron matchup? Or will we instead get ‘Melo vs. LeBron? NBA fans win either way, and on Saturday, we may get a pretty firm idea of just how far the Nuggets can take this thing.

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