NBA PM: Kobe Ill, Can Lakers Close?
Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers missed shootaround Thursday in Denver before Game 6 against the Nuggets with gastroenteritis (stomach flu). His status is uncertain although the team expects/hopes that he’ll be available tonight in LA’s second-straight opportunity to eliminate the Nuggets.
Denver gave a gutsy performance on Tuesday, beating the Lakers 102-99. The series stands at 3-2. If Game 7 is needed, it will be on Saturday in Los Angeles.
Bryant playing below 100% can be a double-edged sword for the Nuggets. It might negatively impact his performance or may do quite the opposite.
Regardless the night for either team will not be “easy.”
Much was made of Laker center Andrew Bynum’s comment the opponents often fold if hit hard early in an elimination game. It did provide something for the Nuggets to rally around, but was it really a factor?
Did Denver suddenly decide to play their most aggressive, passionate game because of Bynum?
“When you’re in a situation that we’re in now where it’s win or go home there’s no time for excuses or saving energy. You just have to do it,” said Denver guard Arron Afflalo about his team’s effort in Game 5.
Can they do it for another 96 minutes?
“We don’t have a choice,” said Afflalo.
It doesn’t matter what anyone inside or outside the Denver organization says. After falling down 3-1, the Nuggets need to play 144 minutes of effort basketball, on both ends. They’ve gotten through 48.
Their defensive game-plan is sound. Constant double-teams on Andrew Bynum with the duo of Corey Brewer and Afflalo charged with as much single-coverage on Kobe Bryant as possible. Perhaps that’s easier with Kobe sick – perhaps not.
Center JaVale McGee, after his career game on Tuesday, pointed out the Denver philosophy on Bryant.
“It’s really hard to stop Kobe,” said McGee. “Kobe’s a great player but if we stop the bigs then we can let Kobe do what he do, and that will really help us out. If everybody has a good game then it’s not a good chance that we’ll win.”
When Gasol is in for Bynum at center, he’ll receive the same treatment of double-teams with the Denver defenders crowding the paint.
How do the Lakers deal with the Nuggets’ scheme? Hit open jump shots.
“They were daring us to take outside shots. We had wide-open shots that we couldn’t make and we have to keep shooting and hopefully they will go in because that’s what they’re doing right now,” said Coach Mike Brown. “They’re backing way off of some of our guys and saying OK let me see you make this shot and right now we’re not doing it.”
They’ll be there for Gasol out high when he’s at four next to Bynum. Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake both hit huge shots in Game 4 and Ramon almost hit an even bigger one at the end of Game 5.
“Our supporting cast really has to help out Pau and Andrew in particular in loosening up the defense,” said Kobe. “You saw the defense tonight, they just sat in Pau’s lap, they sat in Andrew’s lap and we weren’t able to knock down shots and make them pay. We have to do a much better job in knocking down some of those shots, timely shots and in turn that will free up Pau and it will free up Andrew.”
Devin Ebanks hit shots in the series opener but hasn’t done much since. Matt Barnes is struggling through an ankle injury and has shot a paltry 27.5% from the field. Even Jordan Hill, perhaps the most productive bench player for the Lakers, has only shot 39.3% from the field.
The problem for the Lakers, be it against Denver or in future series should they advance, is that outside of the trio of stars the role players are shooting a combined 37.3% from the field.
They’re not making Denver pay for collapsing on Bynum and alternately Gasol, which makes it harder and harder for LA to get the kind of inside touches they need to run their offense affectively.
“I think that when we play in the playoffs especially the deeper we get teams are going to say hey, Kobe ain’t beating us or Andrew ain’t beating us,” said Brown. “That’s kind of what Denver said from the beginning and that’s why Andrew gets double-teamed quicker than any other guy I think I’ve seen so far in these playoffs.”
The solution is simple but the Lakers haven’t quite been able to get it done, at least not for four of the five played.
“Other guys are going to have to step up and make shot,” said Brown. “[Bynum's] getting doubled, our guys are getting doubled, somebody’s going to have to step up and make a shot because some of our guys are getting clear, wide open shots.”
There’s only so much coaching to be done if those shots aren’t dropping. Coach Phil Jackson had similar troubles with the team through both his tenures with the Lakers, even with the triangle offense.
“It’s tough to get [Bynum] the ball when you got somebody sitting in his lap and somebody sitting behind him and then when he does get the ball and the double team comes as quick as it comes, the floor has to be spaced,” said Brown. “He has to be willing to throw the ball out right now instead of trying to make a move between two or three guys. The Nuggets are doing a great job.”
The Lakers have to use Game 3 as the model but the passer isn’t the one who will make the shot. Kobe can give it up to Sessions, Blake, Barnes or Ebanks but then it’s on them . . .
“They just have to step up and make them,” said Brown.
Sharp passing can help diminish the power of a double-team but at some point the shooters have to hit. Despite their struggles, Brown believes they’ll improve as the playoffs go on.
“I feel these guys are champions. I feel these guys are winners,” said the Lakers coach.
LA will also get Metta World Peace back for either Game 7 against the Nuggets or Game 1 in Oklahoma City against the Thunder.
Bryant doesn’t want to look ahead to the Thunder but he’s not worried about a short turnaround to the next series, should LA advance.
“I don’t care if you give us [a year],” said Kobe. “If we’re fortunate enough to move on to play Oklahoma, that year’s rest isn’t going to make us any faster.”
McGee the Difference for Denver?
Center JaVale McGee, a midseason acquisition from the Washington Wizards, has made a major impact on the series on what is his playoff debut.
“Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” said McGee Tuesday. “My last game of the year is usually at the end of the regular season in April. I didn’t want tonight to be my last game.”
His 21-point, 14-rebound performance was stunning. McGee may be the most athletic center in the NBA. He’s also extremely raw and inconsistent, perhaps stemming from his 3 1/2 chaotic years in Washington.
While he clearly has begun to develop the past two seasons, he’s still behind the curve and trying to mature under a playoff spotlight.
It’s no coincidence that the Nuggets also won Game 3 when McGee put up 16 points and 15 boards. In the three losses, JaVale has averaged 5.0 points and 6.3 rebounds. In wins, 18.5 and 14.5.
“We’re still down in this series and still have games to win,” said McGee, discounting his huge game. “It’s an honor to be here.”
For the Nuggets to win, even with their defensive schemes and hurry-it-up offense, they’re going to need two more big performances from JaVale.
Neither Team Hitting the Long-Ball
The Lakers have not shot the ball well from distance this series, at all, hitting 28.6% from the field. The Nuggets have been worse . . . at 23.0%.
“Our only chance to beat them is to run ‘em and play with tremendous energy and intensity,” said Denver Coach George Karl. “Maybe somewhere along the way we’ll make some threes because our three looks, Al [Harrington's] three looks, [Danilo Gallinari's] three looks, Arron’s three looks, I mean we have three of our best shooters shooting probably under 20% from the three ball and somewhere along the way that might change, I’m hoping.”
The Lakers consider themselves a defensive-minded team and they’ve held the Nuggets to 95.4 points per game, a large dip from their league-leading 104.1 during the league season.
LA averaged 97.3 points and while they haven’t necessarily been as efficient as they would like, the drop-off from the regular season to the 96.4 they’ve averaged against the Denver is almost negligible.
Even in Game 5, with the Nuggets giving the Lakers everything they had, LA nearly closed the gap in the final minute and had a clean look at the tie at the buzzer (but Sessions’ three didn’t drop).
“They couldn’t make open shots and then all the sudden we started challenging the three and they made every shot that they took. They banked it in from 35 feet,” said Karl. “I mean Kobe . . . I don’t know if we can defend him any better. The one out of the corner, how do you defend that? Thank God we had a big enough lead.”
If the Nuggets get Game 6 and/or Game 7, George has a reasonable expectation of what that’s going to take. He was jubilant after his team’s Tuesday victory.
“I didn’t expect us to win by double digits,” said Karl after the game in the media session. “I’m just so damn happy that we won the game. You shouldn’t be asking me questions. My euphoria is not making me think very well.”
Fouling for Three
Karl had the opportunity to foul the Lakers on their final possession with Denver up three. Instead he relied on his team’s defense to close out the game . . . and escaped.
George explained why he didn’t foul.
“We haven’t had time to practice fouling. I don’t trust the referees at the STAPLES Center,” joked Karl. “I don’t know, every coach in America thinks that you should foul but I haven’t figured out how to foul. Players say they want to foul until you have to foul, so there’s a conflict of psychology going on. The only way I think is veteran team and practicing. We’re not a veteran team and we don’t practice it.”
Bryant harkened back to his time with Jackson on why the shot didn’t fall for the Lakers.
“I use to have a coach that use to say the basketball gods would not allow us to win this game today, because we didn’t deserve it,” said Kobe.
Bryant had gone a late scoring jag to turn a double-digit deficit into nearly a tie at the end of regulation. That’s not something Kobe wants his team to count on in the postseason.
“I almost bailed us out. That’s what happened,” said Bryant. “I started making shots left and right and got us back in the ball game and that’s not something that we can use to rely on to get us to a championship. We can’t be that. We all have to step up and we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that kind of energy and sense of urgency.”
Dre Still Making an Impact
Veteran guard Andre Miller helped carry the Nuggets over the finish line. Despite not being quick, especially athletic or even a great shooter, Miller has carved out a long, successful career in the NBA at the point position.
“He’s crafty and he’s strong,” said Coach Brown. “He had a couple of drives to the hole where he pumped Steve [Blake] off and ended up getting layups. He’s a very good player. He’s a veteran guy that knows all the little tricks and nuances in the game of basketball and you saw a lot of them come out tonight.”
Miller scored 24 points on 11 field goal attempts and dished eight assists with just one turnover. As great as McGee was, many of his points came off of Andre’s creativity at the point.
Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to insure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @jfleminghoops, @TheRocketGuy, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @alexraskinNBA, @TommyBeer and @YannisHW.