For the first time in the Western Conference Finals, the team that imposed its will during the outset of a game didn’t fall into the pitfalls of complacency, laziness and dulled focus.
No surprise then that with the Denver Nuggets carrying out their game plan for a full 48 minutes, they were able to go over, around, and through the underwhelming Los Angeles Lakers for a commanding 120-101 Game Four victory.
The Denver win didn't involve a strategic adjustment or Herculean individual exploit—the Nuggets simply kept doing what they’ve been doing throughout the series for a full 48 minutes, instead of the 18 and 32-minute stretches they mustered over the initial three games of the series.
The Nuggets buried the Lakers in the battle of the boards, with the Nuggets front court trio of Nene, Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen outrebounding Los Angeles by themselves. Overall the Nuggets retrieved 58 missed shots to the Lakers 40, but the most damaging rebounds came after their own missed shots.
Because the Nuggets were hellbent on attacking the hoop at each and every opportunity, players who would normally be boxing out their assigned men were forced to rotate over and help on the penetration leaving throngs of Nuggets with free paths to the basketball.
Also, because the Lakers continued to employ their strong-side flooding defense to contain Carmelo Anthony, the Lakers were assigned to box out areas instead of bodies, a perilous flaw that can be taken advantage of by diligent glass-attackers. So despite Anthony missing every single one of his eight first-half field goal attempts, the Nuggets grabbed the rebound after six of those misses.
While those two factors above give softening excuses for LA’s pitiful board presence, the hard fact is the Nuggets simply out-hustled and outworked the Lakers. Their strong men played stronger, their quick jumpers jumped quicker and played harder than their Lakers counterparts who seemed to hope missed shots would fall into their hands, instead of taking the effort to get into the fray, find a body, box out, and jump strong to the ball.
Andrew Bynum‘s landlocked knees prevented him from jumping for boards, Pau Gasol was often blasted out of position by the original penetration and unable to get back into position, Lamar Odom was lazy, and the Lakers guards felt that rebounding wasn’t part of their job description. Even Kobe Bryant was simply bulled away from the basket by Anthony on a second half battle.
With the Nuggets attacking the rim and tattooing the glass, they tallied 52 points in the paint and 37 more from the line. So even though their jump shooting as a team was spotty (7-24 3FG), and even though they got virtually no production from Anthony (3-16 FG) until late, the Nuggets were still able to build a lead that was never seriously threatened.
While Nene and Martin were duds in Game three, they responded in full force in Game four.
Nene, when he wasn’t doling out assists on the break, was crashing the boards, menacing the baseline, and dive-cutting into dunks or assist passes when the Lakers would load up their zone.
Martin hit most of his line-drive push shots, and played exceptional defense whether on the perimeter, the post, or when helping at the rim. It was Martin’s ruthless rebounding and quick-footed defense that made Lamar Odom vanish into thin air.
Chris Andersen made a pair of spectacular blocks, slammed in a pair of high-flying dunks, and played with the same kind of boundless passion that supercharges the fans and his teammates.
When the Nuggets were patient, extra passes, and subsequently, open layups and jump shots, were the routine. To show how efficient Denver’s offense was, they recorded 23 assists on 38 baskets with the unassisted hoops mostly accounted by breakaways, put-backs, or J.R. Smith’s one-on-one adventures. More impressively, opposing those 23 assists were only six turnovers.
If Chauncey Billups never found the stroke aside from a home run ball early in the fourth, he took great care of the ball (zero turnovers) and had a knack of waiting for a screen to arrive and bring a defender away from the basket, before going away from the screen and simply beating his man to the rim.
Plus Billups’ ability to organize his team into proper defenses as well as his ability to motivate, understand, and relate to each of his teammates’ specific needs on the court are invaluable. He’s the rock that keeps the Nuggets’ potentially combustible team steady through the highs and lows of playoff basketball, and is proving that he’s worth much more than his terrific on-court talents.
Other than a stretch from late in the third into the early portions of the fourth, J.R. Smith quelled his desire to make high-risk, high-reward plays, instead concentrating on blowing by his man, getting to the hoop, and making either a tough finish or a slick pass.
With J.R. making plays at the hoop in the first half (4 AST), no doubt his confidence would soar and the jumper that had abandoned him throughout the series would return. And lo and behold, Smith hit four shots from behind the arc over the final 13 minutes to vanquish the Lakers.
Linas Kleiza and Anthony Carter didn’t make many mistakes (aside from Carter’s customary home run outlet-pass-gone-awry), and knocked down their jumpers—4-6 FG, combined.
The Nuggets attacked Kobe Bryant’s roaming help defense on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. With Kobe failing to trap Anthony Carter, the Nuggets ran a cross-screen in the middle of the paint. With Andrew Bynum confused and forced to guard two players one-on-one, a lob to Linas Kleiza resulted in a layup. On the next possession, Kobe was in no-man’s land on an a Carter drive, leading to a wide-open three for Kleiza.
Dahntay Jones’ goon ball tactics visually frustrated Kobe Bryant and led to Bryant’s decision to try and win the second half all by himself. Of his 26 shots, many were forced and rushed, and he settled too often for ten threes, many of them standstill jumpers early in the shot clock.
When Kobe did post up, he was either doubled or had a dominating mismatch on any defender aside from Billups or Anthony. However, Bryant rarely posted himself up, instead electing to abandon the triangle and elect to try and shoot his team back into the ball game.
And contrary to belief, he had help. Whenever Gasol posted Nene, good things happened, whether on his own—8-11 FG—or for others—4 AST.
Why did the Lakers so rarely look to initiate their offense with Gasol in the post?
Andrew Bynum—6-7 FG, 14 PTS—likewise had success in the pivot but wasn’t featured enough.
Whenever any big man attacked Andersen’s inferior post defense one-on-one and prevented him from soaring from the weak-side, the Lakers would get a layup, or a foul, or both.
Luke Walton made excellent decisions with the ball throughout the game, reading the Nuggets’ switching defenses and recognizing Andersen defending Bynum in the post, or attacking off the dribble forcing Andersen to step up and feeding Bynum behind the Birdman for an uncontested dunk.
While Walton was whistled for six fouls in his 12 minute shift, some of the calls seemed absurd after he drove the lane early in the fourth and got smacked across the face with no call. When he went to argue, he got slapped with a technical.
But hey, the Nuggets were clearly the aggressors, clearly executed better basketball than the Lakers, and were playing at home. Of course the Nuggets would be the beneficiaries of a few judgment calls. But the one call the refs egregiously missed was a blatant trip of Kobe Bryant by Jones on an attempted backdoor cut, a play which deserved to be at least a personal foul, and more appropriately a flagrant foul.
Is it dirty? Who cares for Denver, it’s clearly working. But underhanded tricks like blatantly tripping a person and shoving him from behind while he’s in the air are ways to do serious damage to a player—much more than mano-y-mano shoving at least—because of the player’s loss of control of his body.
With all the unwarranted flagrants and technicals that have been issued this postseason, Jones is the rare breed who deserves a harsher penalty while other players get tooted for having arms locked up, or having their face in front of a player’s elbow.
But while David Stern and his cronies may be able to do something about Jones, he can’t do anything to stop the muggings the Nuggets are putting on the Lakers’ interior frontline.
Finally, the Nuggets were able to maintain their edge for a full 48 minutes. If the Lakers’ don’t follow suit, they’ll be beaten and bullied out of the playoffs for the same fundamental reason the Celtics knocked them out last season.