Game No. 1/Win No. 1
I have a love/hate relationship with the playoffs.
I love that it’s the pathway to the Finals, that the best teams in the league are competing, and that every game means something.
But I hate the tension, the nervousness, and the worry over little problems that may become big ones leading to a key loss.
But when all is said and done, when the Lakers play with the poise, professionalism, and control they played with today, the playoffs can be a joy to watch.
Starting from the tip-off, the Lakers were playing some incredibly fluid team ball.
There’s nothing like seeing the Lakes go up by double digits without the offensive services of Kobe. The rate this team was moving the ball (with that touch pass drill from Luke to Lamar back to Gasol for the jam in the first) was so gratifying to see.
This team operates best when they pass three times or more in a set. When they settle into a one or no pass offense, like they did in the vacant second quarter today, they struggle.
Of course what helped the offense to flow early on in the game (and later, too) was the hustle and mostly strong-footed defense they played.
In that first quarter there was a total of three inside shot attempts, with two of those coming off of ill-advised three-pointers.
The Lakers held the Nuggets to a mid-range game by playing well-spaced defense.
There were no gaps left in the lane by overplaying one side. There was no weak spot along the baseline because the Lakers were balanced between leaning towards help in the paint and watching the cuts along the bottom.
The weak spot in this game came in the second quarter when, for some odd reason (again), the Lakers fell in love with the three though it was the inside game that was destroying the Nuggets.
To survive in these playoffs, the Lakers can’t be tempted to play a game that doesn’t lend itself to their strengths. The Lakers are a strong passing team with great ability to cut and move off of those (as the triangle lets you do).
To run away from that is senseless really. There’s no reason for the Lakers to devolve into a range shooting team against a team that forces you to make no adjustments all game.
This is no news flash, but when you’re playing a fast team like the Nuggets who want to run it, you’re playing right into their hands by shooting the long ball.
They know the percentage isn’t huge for the Lakers from range. They positioned themselves for rebounds accordingly, and then the Nuggets got way too many uncontested run-out scores to take the lead.
Some of the reluctance to do what worked came from the bench.
This is the first year the bench has been leaned on to play significant minutes and roles in the playoffs. When they come in to spell the starters, they have to keep up the cuts and dives and movement to the open spot that the starters have perfected.
There was a lot of undue packing in the middle on defense. They were apparently looking to prevent the second chance rebounds, but at the price of leaving wide open shots for known Laker-killers like Smith and Kleiza.
Sticking with the bench, though, Luke was in (hopefully not) rare form. His work from the post was admirable. He wasn’t forcing the shot from it; rather he was using it to bring down the Nuggets mid-range defense.
A couple times Luke recognized mismatches against him on the block in great time. My favorite part was seeing Luke get his blocked once in the first quarter, but instantly making an adjustment to use his body to protect the ball on the very next possession of his.
Luke showed why he is perfectly matched with the triangle today. His movement off the ball was on the money. He had Carmelo jumping from perimeter to mid-range without ever giving up access to good post position in the process.
The help defense coming from the paint to the mid-range on jab drives has got to be a touch quicker. There was too much lag time (in the second quarter in particular) to take those two or three extra steps in to cut off defense collapsing dribbles.
One guy who was helping and practically doing everything any player could on the court was Lamar.
The guy, from the first tip, was hustling for any ball within his long reach. Most impressive was Lamar’s ability to neutralize Camby on the defensive end. He had Camby (and Martin at times) completely shut out of rebound position.
The back door lobs the Nuggets made their living on against the Lakers were non-existent. Lamar held space so well defensively, too. Once he was where he had to be, the position wasn’t given up without a fight.
Offensively, the guy was stunning to watch work in the paint. His passing (the pass to Gasol in the first for the jam and the gorgeous touch pass to Gasol in the second quarter at the 40-second mark) was beautiful.
Best of all was seeing Lamar finish with aplomb every time he had the chance to. The cute layups and soft finishes in traffic have disappeared in favor of some seriously strong cuts with the ball for the dunk.
Odom was working hard all game, and that work paid off in great looks for Gasol.
With Odom playing watchdog all along the mid-range and inside, it left Gasol as the odd man out of the Nuggets “defensive” scheme. Having that hustle guy off the ball and getting passes on the fly to a perfectly positioned Gasol was a mammoth key in the Lakers offensive flow today.
It was truly a flawless game from Gasol.
The guy was exactly where he should’ve been and needed to be every single time. There wasn’t one moment when he got caught even a step away from where he was needed.
When the ball was driven on the side he stepped out of the paint giving room for the inside cut, the put-back dunk, the pass, or a simple rebound. His spacing was textbook today.
It's tough not to go adjective crazy with the way Gasol played today, but it’s unbelievable that the Lakers have a guy like Gasol to flank Kobe.
It wasn’t the amount of scoring he had (although that was great in a pretty inefficient game from Kobe), but more the manner in which he got his points.
Defensively, Gasol played off of Lamar well.
I think if Lamar hadn’t played as strongly as he did all game in the paint, things may have been tougher for Pau. But the fact is that Pau gave the space necessary to Lamar for him to do what he has to while also keeping live in every play underneath.
Radmanovic, though not on fire from the perimeter, did what he usually does pretty well, contributing in other manners.
He was really active offensively and looking to feed everyone off of the unexpected post position he was pushing. It’s key for Radmanovic in this series to make sure he’s a part of what’s going on, even when he isn’t drilling shots.
One guy who I thought played real well for his lack of playoff experience was Farmar.
When the crowd was pumped and the Lakers were looking to blow up, Jordan kept the ball, himself, and the team in check by slowing the ball down when he had to and running plays.
He did well in not letting the bench guys or anyone on the court get carried away into moving off of what was working.
Oh yeah, Kobe was decent today, too. It wasn’t the Kobe who can dominate a game, but wasn’t it fantastic to not have to have that Kobe on the floor to get a playoff win?
Kobe’s leadership and support for his teammates was his highlight for me today. The trust and excitement he shows when his teammates are dong well is better than any stat.
Just a couple more things…
The Lakers have got to be careful in every game now not to let the possibility of three-pointers sway them from the triangle offense, their plays, or their calm.
The Nuggets want the Lakers to shoot long, to lower their percentage, and move away from their inherent advantage on the inside. Shooting threes is fine if the play calls for it, or if it’s designed that way, but just because you’re open on the arc doesn’t always mean you have to chuck it.
It’s a zone defense; don’t pass around it or wait until seven seconds in the shot clock to get the ball inside. Attack it soon and often.
I did love seeing the closeout of Kleiza after his mini-run in the beginning of the second quarter.
The team did a fantastic job of not letting Kleiza get into an unbreakable rhythm as he has before. They saw the problem and quickly corrected it without giving up another element to Denver to swoop in on.
The giant bright spot today was that third quarter, obviously. Kobe played minimal minutes but the Lakers were looking like a championship caliber team as they played under control and strong at once.
I can keep going, but that’s long enough. Keep in mind it's only one game, but it was so great to see a Laker team play like they’re ready for the challenge that the West will be.