As I watched Game 3 of the Lakers vs. Nuggets series on Saturday, a couple of minutes into the fourth quarter I began to get that sinking feeling that the Nuggets would self-destruct even after dominating for long stretches. Why, you ask? Well, the Nuggets never turned their domination into a big enough lead to sit on comfortably.
It seemed as if the Lakers had a strategy; conserve energy for the fourth quarter spurt, and while doing so, don't fall too far behind. This is playoff basketball; it's the conference finals. The Nuggets haven't been here in a long, long, time, since 1985 to be exact.
The Lakers, well, they're veterans as far as playoffs go. This is a team that has a history, a couple of recent dynasties, to back up its No. 1 seeding in the West.
A few points that I want to highlight here, where I feel that the Nuggets could improve going into Game 4 today.
Using the Shot Clock Efficiently
Firstly, rushing into ill-advised quick long jumpers more often than not means that you'll be playing more defense. A couple of quick three-pointers can definitely pile pressure on the opposition, but when you miss, that's the problem.
I can recall at least four times when Chauncey Billups ran up the floor, with teammates trailing, and just launched a three. Not only that, he missed them. For one, this wrongfoots your teammates, who are making their way up the floor having just played defense, and are looking forward to at least 20 seconds of offense.
Second, by giving the ball back to the opposition, you run up the risk of players getting into foul trouble. The more defense you have to play, the higher the chances of the foul-count going up.
It's hard enough defending Kobe Bryant, but to have to do it more often is an invitation to your own demise. When Carmelo Anthony was on the floor along with Nene, the Nuggets were a totally different team in the first half.
In Game 4 the Nuggets should look to try and use the shot clock more efficiently. Work the ball around. Points in the paint is an area the Nuggets should dominate. If it weren't for Chris Andersen, the Nuggets may have fallen behind earlier. His above-average output is something that can't be expected every game.
Billups, being the leader of this team, and the only player who has progressed to a Conference Finals series before, needs to control his rushes of blood to the head and lead by example. If the Nuggets are leading by six, it doesn't mean they should go for broke and hope to be up by 12 in two possessions.
These are the Lakers, who have been the best team in the West, and patience will be needed to break them down. The Nuggets faltered in their three-point shooting and this came back to hurt them.
Get Carmelo or Billups to Guard Kobe
Kobe Bryant is not your usual guard. He will have a height advantage on many a guard. He needs to be shadowed, possibly double-teamed in order for the Lakers to look to other options. The first quarter saw Kobe barely getting a look-in, but then the Lakers began to work around the Nuggets defense, which also resulted in foul trouble for Denver.
Dahntay Jones was very lucky not to be penalized any more than he was for his two-handed push on Kobe Bryant. That is a very dangerous ploy, especially since Kobe was in the air at the time.
Fully Utilize Every Second That Kobe Spends on the Bench
Despite Kobe's absence in the third quarter for a prolonged period, the Nuggets only ended up with a seven-point lead (including the technical called on J.R. Smith). When Kobe Bryant is on the bench, the Lakers' offense usually stalls. That is the time to make the high percentage plays.
Push the ball in close to the hoop instead of relying on jumpers. This could draw fouls from the Lakers' big men, and also result in trips to the foul line, which is one department Denver has done well in. When Anthony and Nene were in foul trouble, none of the Lakers had more than three fouls.
There's a Difference Between Aggression and Stupidity
George Karl has been here before and knows the heartbreak of losing to potential champions. Billups has already won an NBA Championship. When things heat up on the floor, it's time for the cooler heads, i.e. Karl and Billups, to calm things down.
Several times, I felt that Karl let the game linger on for longer than was advisable even as the Lakers were building up momentum. A quick time-out or two to calm down players' nerves needs to be up for consideration.
Silly technical fouls need to be avoided. Sure, you consider yourself worthy of a place in the Western finals, but games in playoffs series are won by the team with the cool heads.
Make the Altitude Count
If the Nuggets lose today, the series would pretty much be over, because winning three straight (two of those in LA) would be next to impossible. Teams won't be intimidated by the altitude, unless the Nuggets make it count.
Again, this involves using the shot clock efficiently, and giving the Lakers the run-around in defense. Kobe Bryant got more than his fair share of a rest on Saturday, and this allowed him to come back in the fourth quarter to take over proceedings.
Lakers Looking Like Favorites Now
The Denver Nuggets were expected to make this a tough series, and they have done that so far. However, even being a Nuggets fan, realistically it seems as if the Lakers might just scrape through this series in six or seven games.
Foremost for the Nuggets is to put the negatives of the Game 3 loss behind them. They need to ensure that they keep their cool throughout the whole game, and not just when they're leading and the crowd is going wild. They need to show that they are resilient enough to come back even while trailing by a few points.
Otherwise, this will be a long and hard lesson for the Nuggets in the difference between championship basketball and just plain basketball.