The first round is over. The Lakers have swept the Nuggets, and above all - they beat them the right way – as a team.
This series showed to a lot of people just why the Lakers walked away with the West’s #1 seed – team play. They of course played through Kobe, their anchor (as they should), but when all was on the line, they played together to eliminate a 50-win team in a sweep for the first time in NBA history.
This isn’t to say there weren’t rickety moments.
All in all though that 1st quarter was exactly what you want to see from your team. Aggressive ball movement and a whole lot of inside play to spark the rest of the offense had the Nuggets running around in a panic from perimeter to paint. Defensively, the Lakers were helping out so well off of screens and picks. It was the rotations down the middle of the paint that were most impressive. Odom was working real well moving with Nene or along side of him to help out on drives. Creating traffic in the middle is all you need to do with Denver’s drives.
The Lakers used their experience to their advantage – yet another sign of team that has learned from their mistakes and is growing stronger – mentally.
We’ve all been looking for that kind of jump-start with focused aggression all year. The times the Lakers have done what they did tonight, they’ve fared real dang well.
Derek started out real well looking more for the drive and kick rather than setting up a 3-point shot early in the game. The thing with Derek was that he just ran out of gas against Iverson’s constant motion everywhere, as many point guards do, have and still will as long as Iverson plays.
But in that 1st quarter the entire Laker team looking to set Gasol up first. If it wasn’t Gasol it was getting the inside game established first, then running off of that success. And key to that success was Gasol’s off ball movement.
Pau was in such a great groove in that 1st quarter – and quietly. His scoring column wasn’t so quiet, but the way he was worming his way from 4 feet out into deep position, as Odom held the ball on the block was real good. When Pau came out of the game for the start of the 2nd quarter, the Lakers stuttered a bit on their communication in the post. The unforced turnovers coming from those miscued passes looked to stem from the Lakers not having that sliding movement from Pau from side to middle.
The surprise with Pau’s game was the strong defense in the paint. The blocks that he had were not only unusual but often came at times when the Laker defense was having trouble finding its rhythm. It got to the point of the Nuggets actually changing shots because of pau’s presence in the middle.
It was the 2nd quarter that saw some reversion from the Lakers back to the unforced turnover team that gives up way too many easy transition buckets. Between those turnovers and the weak rotation along the baseline that cropped up from nowhere, the Lakers ran into a wall that mostly built by their own lack of sharp play.
Speaking of that 2nd quarter, Mbenga was fantastic. After the monster block, he just caught fire. It wasn’t so much of a scoring frenzy, but Mbenga’s activity off the ball was both unexpected and great. His running of the floor from defense to offense especially was all hustle. To see him fill the gap in the paint when Kobe or Lamar brought the ball to the side of the key was so gratifying. He looked to be getting the hang of the off-ball motion of the triangle.
The enthusiasm he showed the entire time he was on the floor, culminating in that spectacular put-back dunk off the missed free throw that really got Mbenga and the team moving with some big hop in their step.
What a great cap to Luke‘s series. That 3 he hit was just a microcosm of the concentrated play Luke gave on the court at all times. Having him come into this game again with that Rambis-esque intensity did wonders to spell the uneven play of Radmanovic.
Lamar played with some serious poise. The lay-up he hit for the basket and the foul against Kleiza in the 4th was yet another microcosm for his season. In that tiny play it showed that the aggression everyone has been hoping would come to Lamar is alive and well. Lamar did great tonight in making himself an obstacle in the paint on defense. The out and out stops weren’t there, but by getting into the mix, he took up the couple of steps the nuggets needed to get their driving game moving. The more he pushed his will in the paint, the more the Nuggets were forced to pass out of the paint or take long range shots.
The same thing was true on offense. Few pays passed by without Lamar getting himself planted in the teeth of the Denver “defense”. By getting that deep position Lamar had several instances of rebounds in traffic, great interior passes or creating a lane of room for a closer shot by the perimeter players.
Kobe was simply unfair tonight. There were countless “How did he do that!” moments. The drive of Kobe came out very obviously tonight too. Every time the Lakers lost the double-digit lead or looked to be struggling he began to take over with scoring, but more importantly he got the rest of the team to wake back up.
Kobe’s problem tonight was what he’s done at times this season, trying to force action to get a whistle. In a game full of real strong / unbelievable play at times by Kobe, this was the only thing that got Denver a hope that they could play some kind of defense.
There is no denying that Kobe displayed, yet again, why he’s the best player in the game. The leadership he showed walking Lamar off the court after a tough miss, consoling him, getting him pumped back up. All the while maintaining mental control of his game and keeping the rest of the Lakers completely in the loop. The dish to Lamar and the swing to Luke for what was basically the game-winning 3 by Luke was something that would’ve never happened before this year. Then the trust in giving it up to Lamar then it finding its way to Gasol on a nice pass from Odom for a dunk in crunch time. It was another moment that showed just how far Kobe’s game has progressed.
The majority of the shots that came in that ugly flat 3rd quarter were because of rushed plays. The ball movement fell victim to the one-pass and shoot style that does the Lakers in. The defense was a bit unsure of positioning, but when the defense did get the stop or got the loose ball, it was the jagged offense that had the Nuggets getting back into the fast up and down game they thrive in.
The 3rd quarter was the Achilles heel tonight, but despite playing completely out of their rhythm and basically playing into Denver’s desperate hustle in the 3rd, they walked out of the quarter with a lead. That was beyond huge.
Then came the tightly played 4th, where the Nuggets finally dug deep and showed they wouldn’t fade without a fight. But the big thing was that no matter what the Nuggets did, the Lakers were always under control. There was no panic in the Lakers play when the Nuggets took their first lead; there was only a deeper focus that led to the Lakers shaking themselves loose of the absent-minded play that reared its head in the 3rd.
The trust of the team is there, the leadership is there, the composure is there, and now the wins are there.
There were 2 key moments for me in this game: 1) When Kenyon Martin was flailing before an inbounds in the 3rd quarter. He was freaking out and when the camera went to Kobe, he just looked at him with a wry smile. That right there magnified the difference in composure, professionalism and overall control between not just the two teams, but just how far the Lakers have come. 2) There was one point in the 1st quarter where Lamar, Kobe and Pau were all rebounding with some serious determination. The desire to win has now found its way into every facet of the game, and into every player on this admirable Laker team that we should all be proud of.
All the praise aside, the Lakers have done nothing yet. The sweep is exactly what they needed to do, but the focus cannot dissipate. There are 3 more rounds to go and it doesn’t get any easier.
For now though, let those flags fly high, sport all the gear you can and keep the positive feeling we all have right now fresh in your mind. That attitude will be needed as the Lakers attempt to march back to where we all know they can be.