Lakers center Andrew Bynum tries to stop the ball from going out of bounds… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Things to watch when the Lakers play the Denver Nuggets Thursday night at Pepsi Center. The Lakers have a 3-2 series lead.
1. Which Andrew Bynum will show up? The Lakers center might want to follow Eminem's lead and prove that the "real Andrew Bynum will stand up." The only problem: few can anticipate who that will be. Bynum has played this first-round series against Denver with a Jekyll-and-Hyde persona.
As Dr. Jekyll, Bynum has played as the league's best center. He tied an NBA playoff record with 10 blocked shots in Game 1. Bynum posted 27 points in Game 2 and then lamented he wanted a perfect performance. And in Game 4, Bynum looked incredibly engaged in both posting up, passing out of double teams and playing defense. As Mr. Hyde, Bynum acknowledged not arriving on time for his pre-game routine and lacking enough effort in a scoreless first half in Game 3. Then in Game 5, Bynum admitted not establishing post position early enough in the shot clock and not providing enough intensity against JaVale McGee.
My money is on Bynum having a standout performance simply because it follows the formula regarding his growth. He usually has a few standout games, provides little effort in the next few and then pulls an immature act. Rinse and repeat.
2. How will Kobe Bryant shoot at Pepsi Center? Anyone who's fretting over Bryant missing two jumpers in the final minute in Game 5 is missing the point. Bryant nearly single-handedly gave the Lakers a win on his accord by dropping 43 points including four consecutive three-pointers in the fourth quarter. It remains to be seen whether he will carry that high productivity, however, to Pepsi Center.
Everyone knows he can do it. He is Kobe Bryant, after all. But it's hard to ignore the fact that Bryant has gone 30-of-99 from the field at Pepsi Center through two regular-season games and two playoff games. All series long, the Nuggets have thrown single-coverage options at him, ranging from Andre Miller, Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari, in hopes of making him take difficult shots. Bryant's also tried driving to the basket to draw contact with mixed results. And he's leaned on teammates to help space the floor.
There's very little Bryant should be doing differently. But it remains to be seen whether Bryant will finally punish Denver at its home court or continue to hit iron.
3. Can the Lakers shore up their outside shooting? Even with Bynum's inconsistent effort, it shouldn't be surprising that he's met some challenges offensively in this series. After all, the Nuggets have devoted all their resources into double-teaming Bynum by throwing JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov at Bynum. In turn, that's frustrated Bynum's efforts on defense. Still, those problems wouldn't be as profound if the Lakers boasted some consistent outside shooting. The Lakers went six-of-25 from three-point range in Game 3, while shooting 38.9% overall in Game 5.
That puts an onus on several players to change their habits. Matt Barnes needs to stop shooting three-point shots altogether and concentrate more on slashing to the basket. Ramon Sessions, Devin Ebanks and Steve Blake have to remain confident in taking open jumpers because they've knocked them down before in this series. And the Lakers need to continue spacing the floor and passing the ball with precision so that these shots come in rhythm.
4. The Lakers have to put more effort in getting back on transition defense. There's no way the Lakers can fully mitigate this issue if they're not rebounding the ball and hitting outside shots consistently. They don't have the speed Denver has, and that's not going to change in one game. Still, Lakers.com's Mike Trudell recently highlighted some steps Brown wants his players to take in preventing transition baskets. The outline shows the Lakers are inconsistent in several areas.
The first note involves all shooters and front-line players outside the paint sprinting back on defense the second a teammate takes a shot. The Lakers routinely wait to see if they get an offensive putback before reacting. Failing to do that has created too much of a cyclical pattern in which the Lakers are behind in protecting the basket, preventing Denver from driving down the middle of the lane and then loading up on the strong side. Bynum and Pau Gasol, in particular, have appeared slow in getting back on defense, giving the Lakers' perimeter players hardly any protection on the weak side in case a bigger player goes past them.