After ferociously attacking the basket in the first two games of this series, the Denver Nuggets forgot their formula for success in Game 3. Their 3-point attempts went up, their free throw attempts went down, and mental errors and critical mistakes at crunch time buried them. By going for the knockout punch with a barrage of 3-pointers, Denver ignored the body blows of rim attacks and free throws that put them in position to win every game in this series. This allowed the Los Angeles Lakers to hang around just long enough in Game 3 for the Black Mamba to land the fatal strikes in the fourth quarter.
When the Nuggets look at the film from Game 3, they should walk out of their meeting room feeling confident that they are in control of their own destiny for Game 4. The mistakes they made on both ends of the floor are easily corrected with better focus, concentration and effort in a few key areas.
Defensively in Game 3, the Nuggets had their biggest problems in transition, either not making the effort to run the floor, or picking up too late and allowing catches too close to the rim that resulted in fouls and layups. Denver cannot win this series without more consistency in both areas.
Evidence of this was substantial, as on a first-half steal by Derek Fisher with Chauncey Billups racing back to cut Fisher off. Trevor Ariza ran past Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin, got the pass back from Fisher and scored an easy layup. Anthony and Martin barely crossed half court. Championship effort puts them both in the play, rather than leaving Billups fending for himself.
Martin was also guilty in the second half, after unnecessarily hanging on the rim and falling down attempting an offensive rebound. Denver had to play four versus five in the half court, with Ariza hitting a wide-open 3 as Martin crossed half court.
Denver also gave up fouls at the rim to Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, after getting back to the lane area but not getting matched up early enough. Transition defense requires getting back, stopping the ball, and matching up quickly. Denver did just one of the three in many situations in Game 3. Look for better communication and earlier pickups, especially of the big men, in Game 4.
In the half court, the Nuggets were excellent on the ball for most of Game 3, but their off-the-ball defense resulted in some easy cuts for layups, as well as a wide-open 3 for Ariza when Anthony just stopped in the lane and let Ariza go out to the corner uncontested. In Game 4, the Nuggets' off-the-ball defense must include more intensity and focus, playing all the way through the possession.
Kobe Bryant scored 41 points in Game 3, but the Nuggets' defense on him was excellent most of the night. They gave up some easy baskets in the first half when they picked him up too late in transition. And they were inconsistent in their denials in the post. When the Nuggets change defenders on Kobe, they must give better effort on his multiple cuts and post-ups to deny him the ball.
Some of the shots Bryant made down the stretch were just "superstar" shots, which are unguardable, high-degree-of-difficulty baskets which only a handful of players can make. They did lose track of him for a wide-open 3 on a missed rotation, however, and this cannot happen in Game 4. Bryant cannot be allowed any breathing room or be allowed to float unescorted on even one possession. Whatever points he gets, he must work harder for in Game 4.
Offensively, this isn't about X's and O's for the Nuggets. Their success in Games 1 and 2 were a direct result of Carmelo Anthony's attacking mentality. Anthony had not a single offensive rebound in Game 3, and he has made only one of his last 13 3s in this series. Denver's offensive success rises and falls with Anthony's aggressiveness; look for him to go back on the attack in Game 4.
Denver's 3-point shooting has worked best in this series as a complement to those rim rushes from Anthony and Billups. This also opens up short jump shots for Nene and baseline baskets for Martin and Chris Andersen. Expect the 3s to continue to fly, but not as the first option in Game 4.
The Nuggets must also focus their attention on end-of-quarter and end-of-game situations for Game 4. From Anthony's quick shot at the end of the first quarter to give the Lakers an extra possession, to J.R. Smith's silly technical at the end of the third, to blowing a two-for-one opportunity in the last 40 seconds, as well as another disastrous turnover on an inbounds pass, Denver's little mistakes on crucial possessions have cost the team dearly.
The Lakers' transition defense must improve drastically in Game 4. They continued to give up easy baskets on the Nuggets' fast break in Game 3. These weren't run-outs ahead of the field or plays when Denver just beat the Lakers back. The Lakers have shown a fundamental weakness to dig in and contest at the basket, giving up easy layups and wide-open catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Coach Phil Jackson will point to an inexcusable second-half play in which the Lakers had four defenders back in the paint defending a Chauncey Billups drive in transition. With only Kenyon Martin with him, Billups missed at the rim, but Martin got the offensive rebound and scored -- two versus four.
With Denver looking aggressively to attack early, the Lakers could get blown out if they aren't defending better on the break in Game 4.
Offensively, the Lakers adjusted to the Nuggets' denials of Kobe Bryant in Game 3 with backdoor cuts from the top, pinch post back screens, and having Bryant circle-cut around the elbow on post fronts. Some of this was by design, but most of it was due to Bryant's off-the-charts basketball IQ. Bryant watches as much film as some coaching staffs, and he is way ahead of Denver in anticipating the Nuggets' defensive tactics.
Denver will continue to front and deny Bryant, probably much more aggressively in Game 4, so expect more of these same counters by Bryant. And with so much attention Bryant's direction, look for quick slips off the ball from the Lakers' perimeter players, as Fisher and Shannon Brown each got easy layups in these situations in Game 3.
With Denver content to play behind Pau Gasol and Bynum in Game 3, the Lakers can expect both to have plenty of post-up opportunities in Game 4. Denver isn't doubling either guy inside, so look for increased focus by L.A. to get the ball into the post, especially if Denver has a switching mismatch.
Fouls on Carmelo Anthony and technicals of any kind. Anthony can't afford the cheap slap and reach fouls, and the Nuggets cannot have bench players giving away points because they lose their composure.
The Nuggets have to know that their failure to win in Game 3 was a combination of self-inflicted wounds and "Mamba Moments" from Kobe Bryant. Outside of a few mental meltdowns, they played well enough to win. But it's those crucial mental mistakes that cost teams playoff games.
The Lakers cannot expect another superhuman performance from Bryant, so they must get their supporting cast into the act in Game 4. With some of the pressure off, this is a great opportunity for Odom and the rest of the Lakers to lift their play back up to a championship level.
With the Lakers knowing they don't have to win again in Denver to win the series, expect more contributions from Bryant's teammates, but Denver's sense of desperation should win this game for the Nuggets.
Nuggets Win Game 4
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.