Lakers center Andrew Bynum, left, and teammates Matt Barnes and Pau Gasol,… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Things to watch when the Lakers play the Denver Nuggets Friday night at Pepsi Center. The Lakers have a 2-0 series lead.
1. Can the Lakers contain the Nuggets' speed? Even with a 2-0 series lead, the Lakers shouldn't suddenly think they're invincible. The Nuggets chipped away at the Lakers' 19-point lead in Game 2 because they pushed in the open floor and wound up with 30 fast-break points. They outhustled the Lakers in rebounding (52-48) and second-chance points (26-19).
Playing in Denver could make it more difficult to overcome. Denver's shooting percentage in regular-season home games (47.9%) and road games (47.3%) were similar, but that dynamic could change. Kobe Bryant joked he'll smoke cigars to prepare for playing at high altitude, but the air could test the Lakers' conditioning. Add in the home crowd, and there's little margin for error in allowing the Nuggets to get in the open floor.
2. What adjustments does Denver make defending Kobe Bryant? The Nuggets have taken an aggressive albeit tightwalk approach in trying somehow to stop the Black Mamba. They mixed double and single coverages on him in Game 1. Denver kept single coverage in Game 2, but mixed Arron Afflalo, Corey Brewer and Danilo Gallinari at different times. It hasn't mattered. After a poor two-of-10 mark in the first half of Game 1, Bryant crushed the Nuggets with a 31-point clip on 11-of-24 shooting by attacking the basket and then getting others involved. Game 2 featured pure Kobe, dropping 38 points on 15-of-29 shooting through an array of fall-back jumpers, one-legged fadeaways and drives to the rim.
The Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman writes that the Nuggets still continue with mostly single coverage because of the concerns in leaving Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum open. But they will continue to throw multiple defensive combinations in hopes he never gets in a comfort zone. It's hardly a successful strategy in stopping Bryant, but they're hoping at least his other teammates won't beat them.
3. The Lakers ball movement needs to still flourish. The Lakers so far have proved their size far outmatches the Nuggets' speed. But they've done so through constant ball movement. The Lakers have struck an incredible balance in ensuring Bryant's scoring, Andrew Bynum's inside dominance and Pau Gasol's facilitating by spacing the floor and hitting the open man. And they've done so without committing too many turnovers (10.5). If the Nuggets continue to go with a smaller lineup, the Lakers can still counter by staying methodical.
4. Another big test for Ramon Sessions. He believes his 10-point fourth-quarter outburst in Game 2 marked a turning point where he found the right balance in playing aggressively and playing at the right tempo. That challenge may heighten in Game 3 since it marks Sessions' first playoff road game. Denver guard Ty Lawson plans to increase his aggressiveness after following Game 1's clunker (seven points) with 25 points in Game 2. And should the Lakers fail to keep the Nuggets from running the open floor, Sessions will be equipped with the most speed to counter that in a high-altitude environment.
5. How will the Lakers' role players perform? Matt Barnes acknowledged his sprained right ankle is only 75% to 78% as he's gone two-of-11 from the field. After a surprising 12 points in Game 1, Devin Ebanks remained more limited in Game 2 because of early foul trouble. Steve Blake's shot was there in Game 1 (nine points), but it wasn't there in Game 2 (zero). And Jordan Hill continues to be a pleasant surprise by posting double-digit rebounds in both games. Anything they've offered this series has been a bonus because of the Lakers' strong production from the Big Three. Considering the heightened road challenges, though, the Lakers wll at least need one "wild card" effort to keep the Nuggets on their toes.