Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
In Game 5, the Lakers cracked the code on the offensive end. They discovered that the Nuggets were giving them swaths of open space in the halfcourt, much of it the result of double-teams. The Lakers' offense is predicated on spacing and movement, and Denver's pressure had the unintended consequence of opening up the floor. Here's Bryant describing the dynamic Wednesday night:
They cocked their whole defense to me so I tried to beat them with my passing a little bit. They've been so ready to trap me and double team me all over the place so I just stretched the floor out, Pau, they double teamed him on the post too. So all we did was just put the ball in my hands, put the ball in his (Gasol's) hands, make the defense commit and then we made plays from there...
I'll just read the defense. Denver's not going to let me isolate someone and go by them. They're not going to let me play one-on-one. I have to trust my teammates to make plays, and then when those lanes open up, I'll take advantage of them.
The Nuggets trapped Bryant aggressively – probably too aggressively -- and the Lakers made them pay. By Thursday morning, some Nuggets players were openly wondering if they were giving Bryant a little too much respect at the expense of their base defense.
How would Denver respond on Friday night?
[1st, 11:40] Right out of the gate, the Lakers test Denver's defensive philosophy by getting the ball to Bryant on the right side, free throw line extended. Will Denver run a double-team at Kobe? Not immediately. It's a deliberate, kinda-sorta double-team, with Carmelo Anthony slowly wandering over from the foul line. What's most notable is how intently the backside of the Nuggets' defense is watching Kobe. With Anthony now committed, Kobe kicks the ball up top to Ariza. The Denver rotation is swift, and the Lakers never get a good look, settling for an aborted alley-oop attempt inside for Andrew Bynum.
If you're a Nuggets fan, the first defensive set is exactly what you want to see: Pressure on Bryant, but a strong, alert rotation that doesn't give him the opportunity to make a play for someone else. Unfortunately, things begin to disintegrate quickly:
[1st, 10:22] Again Kobe at the free throw line extended on the right side, and again he draws a deliberate double-team. This time it's Nene, who ambles over, then returns to the interior as Kobe passes off to Gasol, who has flashed to the foul line. The miscommunication on the Nuggets' part is awful. Nene has returned to Bynum underneath -- but Kenyon Martin has already rotated onto Bynum. So now, the least potent offensive Laker on the floor is being doubled off the ball by Denver. That's all it takes for the Lakers to find the open shot on the perimeter. The ball goes to Fisher, who promptly sends it to a wide, wide open Trevor Ariza beyond the arc.
Ariza finishes the night with 17 points on only nine shot attempts. He's the primary beneficiary of Denver's defensive lapses:
[1st, 3:17] The Lakers have found a formula they like: Bryant just off the elbow on the right wing, and, again, it's Carmelo creeping over for the double. When Anthony commits, Ariza cuts through to the weak side where he hides behind the Nuggets' zone. For a second, it looks like Billups will pick him up on the rotation, but Jordan Farmar puts a crimp in that plan by floating out to the top of the circle. Billups follows him there, which frees Ariza for a basket cut. Bryant hits him underneath for a reverse slam.
Your 2009 Los Angeles Lakers. Gladly accepting their opponent's challenge against their first option to leverage an open shot for their second. They shoot 60% from the floor in the first half with 16 assists on their 21 field goals.
And Mr. Gasol?
[3rd, 10:39] The Lakers feed Gasol at the mid-left post, then send a double-team at him, even though he's 18 feet from the basket. The Nuggets' rotation is a mess. With Dahntay Jones doubling Gasol, Bryant retreats to the weak side perimeter. Nene doesn't know whom to account for, and is frantically tagging various Lakers as they swarm around the court. Gasol watches him closely, patiently. Just as Nene settles on Andrew Bynum, he realizes Bryant is alone on the perimeter. The instant Nene breaks for Bryant, Gasol hits the now-open Bynum underneath for an easy slam.
The Lakers had ignored Gasol for much of the series, and relegated him mostly to dribble hand-offs at the pinch post when they used him at all -- an absolute waste. When you have the best passing big man in basketball, it's a crime not to utilize that talent. Friday night, they abided.
The Lakers' issues in this postseason has never been about heart, and rarely been about effort. It's a matter of execution, exploiting their vastly superior skill set in a system perfectly tailored to their talent.