Apr 3, 2011, 7:15 PM EDT
With just 10 days of NBA games remaining, some first round playoff matchups are pretty much set. Out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder are almost certainly getting the Denver Nuggets in the first round.
Sunday Denver beat the Lakers by outworking them, being more scrappy, playing good defense and moving the ball on offense (95-90 was the final score). They have beaten the Celtics and Spurs the same way since the All-Star break.
The Thunder have more size and more talent, they are more athletic. But Nuggets are going to make it very tough to beat them four times out of seven. This is a good team. And if the Thunder don’t bring it and are looking ahead to the second round they will not get there.
What the Nuggets did to the Lakers was not a thing of beauty. The first half was ragged, with the Lakers length giving Denver some trouble, the Nuggets activity giving the Lakers some trouble, and both teams just missing a lot of good looks.
Denver shot 29.5 percent for the first half and the Lakers led 47-40 at the break despite having an offensive rating of just 95.9 (points per 100 possessions). Kobe Bryant hit 4-of-6 in the second quarter and had 19 points for the half (28 for the game). Danilo Gallinari had 18 in the first half for Denver and finished with 22.
The game remained close in the third but at the start of the fourth Denver’s bench executed better than the Lakers. And that better execution continued through the fourth quarter.
Denver was able to use 18 Laker turnovers for the game and a lot of missed shots to get out and run — the game had 97 possessions. That’s faster than the Lakers want to play, but just where the Nuggets like it.
The old Nuggets, when the game got tight, you could count on a Carmelo Anthony isolation and the Lakers would bring a big man over to the strong side early, a defense that usually allowed them to stop Denver late. But now Raymond Felton is hitting a cutting Kenyon Martin with a sharp pass and Denver is getting layups.
The Lakers played the end of the game without Andrew Bynum, who tweaked his knee and was kept out for what the team called “precautionary reasons.” (Both Bynum and Pau Gasol will have MRIs on their knees Monday after both had tweaks.)
The result was that with the Lakers down 3 and 11 seconds to go, Nene missed a free throw but Martin just outmuscled Lamar Odom, got the rebound and tipped it in. That was the dagger.
The Lakers had been sloppy in their previous game at Utah, the Jazz just don’t have the team that can make them pay. The loss ended the Lakers nine-game win streak. The loss, combined with a Spurs win over the Suns, makes it less likely the Lakers can catch the Spurs for the top seed in the West.
Denver was just the scrappier, hungrier team but they also are playing good team basketball right now. There are a lot of teams that, if they shared the ball like Denver is doing right now, if they were working as hard on defense, would be a lot better.
Denver is going to be a very tough out in the playoffs. They are capable of beating anyone. Oklahoma City is a better team on paper and will have the two best players in that series on their team. But if they don’t focus and execute, Denver will be the team moving on from that series.