Lakers center Andrew Bynum powers his way past Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Things to watch when the Lakers play the Denver Nuggets Sunday night at Pepsi Center. The Lakers have a 2-1 series lead.
1. Which Andrew Bynum will show up? It's sad to wonder if any professional athlete will bring his full effort in a playoff game. But Bynum admitted that he arrived late for warmups in Game 3 and didn't really try, resulting in a scoreless first half. Sounds odd for someone who said only days ago that he wants to have perfect games. But this is Bynum we're talking about, who has repeatedly derailed his progress with immature behavior. Spare me the nonsense that is part of his growing process. Being prepared is a basic and expected requirement. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Bynum either doesn't get it or just doesn't care.
2. The Lakers can't force outside shots. Kobe Bryant mostly blamed the Lakers' Game 3 loss on their six-of-25 mark from three-point range more than Bynum's scoreless first half. I disagree slightly since Bynum's passiveness made it easier for the Nuggets to defend the Lakers, outrebound them and then push the pace on the open floor. But remaining trigger-happy from the outside is hardly a good formula, either. Even if the Lakers are facing double teams in the post, they need to quickly move the ball. Because of their recent inconsistencies, the Lakers should step in a few feet should they receive open three-pointers.
3. The Lakers need to outrebound the Nuggets. A disturbing trend has developed in this series whereby the Lakers have progressively worsened while the Nuggets have substantially improved. That's most notable in the rebounding area, which the Nuggets won in in both Games 2 (52-48) and 3 (54-44). This is alarming on many levels. The Lakers dominated this category all season. They feature two seven-footers and surprising reserve Jordan Hill. And the Nuggets' front-line combinations in rookie Kenneth Faried, reserve JaVale McGee and starting center Timofey Mozgov hardly boast the same skill set. Dominating in this area would give the Lakers their best opportunity to reduce the Nuggets' chances in pushing the ball in transition. That's because the Lakers don't have the speed and athleticism, but they have the size. Now it's on them to use it.
4. Will the Lakers feature Kobe Bryant any differently? At first, Bryant appeared unstoppable. Whether he met double teams or single coverage, Bryant punished the Nuggets with two 30-point plus performances in the first two games. That came to a crashing halt in Game 3, where he scored 22 points on only seven-of-23 shooting. Bynum's lack of aggressiveness partly contributed to Bryant taking some difficult shots. Perhaps it reflects his 20-of-74 mark this year through three games at Pepsi Center. But a lot of Bryant's shooting struggles in Game 3 came with him taking the same difficult shots he took in Game 2, but this time they just didn't drop in the basket.
Bryant suggested to reporters afterward that the Lakers would have to tinker with their offense so that he receives more looks in the post instead of the perimeter. It'd also be a good idea for Bryant to attack the basket, either to draw fouls or convert on high-percentage shots. It's a much better gamble than taking fall-back jumpers.
5. The Lakers need more from their bench. It seems as if we're always asking for more from the Lakers bench. But even in a playoff series that features tightened rotations, the Lakers can't afford a significant drop-off in play among the reserves. The Nuggets have outscored the Lakers' bench by an average of 28.7 points per game. Matt Barnes has connected on only four of 20 shots. Steve Blake has shot only 26.7% and scored three points since the second quarter of Game 1. Jordan Hill usually provides hustle points, but he was scoreless and had only six rebounds in Game 3.
It's unrealistic to expect the Lakers' bench to suddenly become a scoring machine. At this point, they are who they are. But they can at least provide intangibles. For Barnes, he needs to channel his energy more on slashing to the basket and setting up teammates than improving his shooting. Blake should concentrate on making crisp entry passes. Hill should continue crashing the glass and getting putbacks. In a close game, the bench's effort might make the difference.