Is Denver a legitimate championship contender or merely a flashy second-tier team? After losing at home to the Clippers and then on the road in Memphis, the Nuggets need a win in L.A. to prove that their season will not yield still another pile of fool’s gold.
Meanwhile, the Clippers are in full sail. After a slow start, and with Chris Paul finally healthy, they seek to establish themselves as the righteous successors to Dallas.
HOW THE NUGGETS CAN WIN: While there’s no doubt that Danilo Gallinari is a budding star, he must be more consistent. If his treys are falling, defenders have to honor every ball fake, which will enable Gallinari to plow his way into the paint. Also, when Gallinari is shooting bull’s-eyes from beyond the arc, the Clippers’ defense will be sufficiently stretched to allow more open spaces and lanes for his teammates to attack the rim.
- Ty Lawson is back in action and adds quickness and speed to Denver’s already potent offense. Since CP3 is an habitual head-turner and not an effective man-to-man defender, he resorts to looking for steals. Accordingly, Lawson must protect the ball and take advantage of Paul’s somewhat risky maneuvers. Also, Lawson must force Paul to either drive or pull left. And since Paul’s shooting has dramatically improved season after season, Lawson does not dare to offer any defensive help.
- Nene has to set sturdier screens than is his wont, hit his mid-range jumpers and overpower DeAndre Jordan in the low post.
- Timofey Mozgov has already demonstrated that he can take advantage of Jordan’s often lackadaisical defensive transitions and wind up with easy scores. In fact, in their last meeting, the Nuggets as a team repeatedly outran the Clippers.
- Arron Afflalo has to drop an occasional 3-ball and smother Caron Butler (whose effectiveness has mostly been reduced to stand-still shooting) at the other end of the game.
- Al Harrington is a dynamic scorer who has to be on target to make up for his monumental defensive deficiencies.
- Andre Miller sees the court and delivers the ball in admirable fashion as well as any of his peers. If his rather flat shots are dropping, and he also makes an occasional venture into the pivot, then Miller can carry the offense for long stretches.
- Rudy Fernandez has to take care of the ball and knock down his quick-release treys.
- Although he’s only a rookie, Julian Stone plays defense like a hardened veteran. The bonus is that he can also shoot bull’s-eyes when neglected by opposing defenses.
- Blake Griffin is certainly one of the league’s most dramatic Dunkensteins, but the Nuggets must take maximum advantage of his numerous flaws, e.g., his atrocious man-to-man defense and his habit of turning jumpers into bricks. Moreover, since Blake’s base is surprisingly weak, he has difficulty establishing and maintaining optimum position in the pivot. Also, given his crude moves down there, when he’s doubled on the move Blake is liable to either hoist up clumsy shots or simply turn the ball over. That’s why he must be attacked at both ends of the game. And, he absolutely must be boxed out to limit his putbacks.
- Better team defense (especially in screen/roll situations), better execution on offense, and continued hustle in transition will turn the game into pure gold.
HOW THE CLIPPERS CAN WIN: Chauncey Billups has to find his way back into the time machine that had him recapturing the rapture of his championship form when he returned to Denver last Sunday. His long distance dialing and tricky maneuverings at both ends of the court proved to be more than his various defenders could handle.
- Paul must shoot the lights out, zip his way into the paint, and expect that his kick-out passes will result in assists. His mates must also cover for his gambling defense.
- Jordan must be judicial in his ball menacing on defense and not attempt to challenge every shot he can see. He also cannot let Mozgov out-hustle him.
- Butler’s corner jumpers have to ring the ball.
- Griffin has one go-to move in the paint — setting up on the right box, taking one power dribble into the middle, then coming back with a drop step to shoot a short semi-hook with his right hand. Accordingly, he should limit his time on the left block. His dunk-backs and screen/roll jams are business as usual, but the Clippers’ cause would be helped immensely if Griffin can bag a couple of jumpers. On defense, he has to avoid being faked off his feet near or beyond the arc, and also generally maintain better balance.
- Mo Williams has to surpass the off-the-bench point production of Harrington.
- The Clippers’ small-ball alignment features three and sometimes four guards. It’s a risky scene on defense but does create extremely favorable matchups on offense — especially for Randy Foye.
- LAC’s keys to victory are controlling the boards, Mr. Big Shot reprising his latest heroics, CP3 doing what he usually does, Jordan effectively covering up for his teammates’ generic lack of defense, getting their running game in gear, and playing better screen/roll defense.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Even under minimal defensive pressure, Denver’s offense can be so erratic that they are frequently unable to get the shot they want and must resort to desperate, last-second isos.
- Although his offense is extremely crude, Mozgov’s bad hands make him a magnet for double teams.
- Notice that Gallinari’s defense is surprisingly adequate.
- Nene’s eyes light up when ostensibly guarded by L.A.’s backup center, the comparatively frail Solomon Jones.
- Look at the expression on Blake’s face when he’s on the foul line. It’s clear that he’d rather be someplace else.
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.