NBA Finals Game 7:  Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers

Lakers to measure themselves against Celtics: What to look for


The Lakers are the two-time NBA defending champions. They have the newest shiny rings and the banner has barely had time to gather dust. Every time they step on the court they are the team the opposition wants to measure itself against.

Except Thursday night. Then the roles will be reversed — the Lakers will be measuring themselves against the Celtics.

It’s not about last June, it’s about this season now. And this season Boston has looked every bit the championship force, the veteran team on top of their conference with their own championship pedigree. They look better than the team that went seven games into the NBA finals last season.

On the other hand the Lakers have looked lackluster, at least as lackluster as a 36-16 team can. They have been inconsistent and uninspired, especially in big games (which they are supposed to win). That includes in a 109-96 win by the Celtics a week ago in Los Angeles, where Boston shot 60.3 percent for the game and pulled away in the second half. The Celtics looked much the better side.

That loss was the straw that broke Mitch Kupchak’s back and had the reserved Laker GM saying publicly maybe it was time to think about trades. It was the first domino to fall, leading us to the current Lakers/Carmelo Anthony silliness.

The Lakers have been more focused of late, especially on the road. Thursday we see if that change was real or cosmetic and the problems in Los Angeles more systemic.

Here are a few things to watch for:

Who controls the boards. These are two of the longest front lines in the NBA and both are used to controlling the glass. In the last 10 meetings, the team that won the battle on the glass won 9. Boston did it in last week’s meeting, but they had Shaquille O’Neal who will be out Thursday with roughly a sore everything. Watch the offensive rebound numbers, if one team has a significant advantage they will have, um, a significant advantage.

Kevin Garnett vs. Pau Gasol. Gasol is the most skilled big man in the NBA, but in the meeting last week Garnett never let him get comfortable. Gasol couldn’t get the ball where he wanted on the floor. Gasol is the hub of the Lakers offense, they need to get him the ball and cut off him. If he can the Lakers offense will click.

Paul Pierce vs. Ron Artest. This is fun to watch just because neither guy gives an inch. Pierce won the battle last go around.

Rajon Rondo vs. Kobe Bryant. In the second half of the last meeting, Rajon Rondo shredded the Lakers defensive plan for him that helped the Lakers get that ring last June. Kobe usually covers Rondo and plays off him, daring him to shoot. Rondo this year has been far better about how to use that space to create passing angles and set up teammates. Or, as he did against the Bobcats a couple nights ago, he can just knock down the shots now. The Lakers need to adjust, it will be interesting to see how.

Ball movement. Both teams use a similar defensive principle — bring a big man over early on the side where the ball is to stymie dribble penetration (get past your defender and Kendrick Perkins or Andrew Bynum is there to greet you). The way you defeat that is quick ball movement to the weak side. Boston recovers and resets quickly, the Lakers do when they are on. But whichever team is getting buckets from the weak side will be the team hitting the easier looks. And in this game the team with more easy looks will likely win.

51 Questions: Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

Michael Malone
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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is Mike Malone the key to bringing Denver back?

One incident sums up how bad things had gotten in Denver under the Brian Shaw regime — breaking a fourth-quarter huddle in the final game of February, Nuggets players chanted “1-2-3-six weeks!”

The players didn’t like the coach, some of them didn’t like each other, and with six weeks and 24 games left in the season they had checked out. The young players (and some of the veterans) partied so much Shaw canceled shootarounds because guys couldn’t roll in for them in the morning. Shaw had lost the team long before when he’d tried to fit square pegs into the triangle holes of his offense, and it spiraled out of control from there. The culture in Denver was broken.

Mike Malone was brought in to repair that culture.

The Jeff Van Gundy disciple has shown he can do that before. Malone was starting to build something in Sacramento (they started last season 9-6 before DeMarcus Cousins got sick), where he was asked to repair a franchise culture that by the end of the Maloof era was something akin to the Lord of the Flies. Malone also turned out to be the one coach who had gotten through to Cousins. Even with his defensive mindset and Cousins in the paint, Malone had the Kings playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the league in pace, but the Kings’ owner wanted to play faster (and maybe didn’t want to miss out on the chance to hire George Karl), so Malone got sacked.

The question becomes, is Malone alone going to turn things around in Denver and bring them back to relevance?

Not alone, and not just in one season, but he will get them on the right track.

The first step to show management was behind Malone was the trading of Ty Lawson. No doubt when focused Lawson is a quality point guard (as Houston likely benefits from this season), but he was part of the problem in the end in Denver, to the point of picking up two DUIs in six months (he checked into a rehab facility after the second one). He had mentally checked out and his example was an issue the Nuggets needed to change.

That turns the keys for the offense over to rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who impressed a lot of people at Summer League after bailing on SMU to play in China last season. But he’s still a rookie with a long way to go — as the 15 turnovers in his first two preseason games attest. Things that worked in China and Summer League don’t fly against an NBA defense.

With Mudiay at the point and a team that plays half its games at high altitude, Monroe wants to take advantage of that and get out and run. Expect the Nuggets to get back to their traditional up-tempo games, but with some things Malone loves to run (such as the Rick Adelman corner action).

But for Malone, all things — including good transition basketball — starts with defense. You have to get stops and steals to run well, and the Nuggets were 26th in the league in defensive rating last season (105.5 points allowed per 100 possessions). In the first two Nuggets preseason games, that was the Nuggets focus (with mixed results).

Malone’s challenge starts with getting Kenneth Faried to buy in and play as hard on defense as he does on offense — something Faried has never done. Faried has been a defensive minus since he entered the NBA and that becomes one of Malone’s first major projects (even if it’s just to boost Faried’s trade value). Faried, who clashed with Shaw over his role, has said he’s felt energized under Malone, now the coach just has to steer that energy to the defensive end of the court.

Malone will be searching for the right center to put next to Faried, and I expect that will mean a lot of Jusuf Nurkic (who is young and shows it at times). But also expect to see some small-ball lineups with Faried at the five. Something like Mudiay, Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Faried. A lineup with some athleticism and shooting that could put up points, but would they get any stops? If Gary Harris slots in for Foye, does that help the defense (Harris is guy Nuggets fans may see more and more of as the season goes on).

The roster is a work in progress, and if you were to bet on the Nuggets doing one thing this season, it should be making trades. Things are going to change.

There are nice pieces on the Nuggets, but not enough of them and with some real questions about how it all fits together. This is not a playoff team this season, not in the West.

But it’s a team that Malone could have playing a lot better late in the season than at the beginning, once some of those questions start to be answered, and the young players gain experience. That should be the goal in Denver. Begin to change the culture, get buy-in on the system, get guys playing hard again rather than dreaming of Cancun vacations by February. Change can be incremental, but Malone will start the change.

Then in a couple of years, you’ve got the team you want.

Well, so long as the Nuggets ownership doesn’t get impatient and decide it needs to change directions again.

Another Pelicans center down: Omer Asik out three weeks

Omer Asik, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver
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The Pelicans will have to play Anthony Davis at center now.

With backup center Alexis Ajinca already sidelined, starting center Omer Asik suffered his own injury.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans announced today that center Omer Asik is expected to miss the next three weeks with a right calf strain. The injury occurred during Wednesday’s practice.

If that three-week timeline is firm, Asik would miss two regular season games – at Warriors and at Trail Blazers.

Davis figured to be the most natural fit at center in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo scheme. What happens if the Pelicans excel with him there and then stumble once Asik and Ajinca return? Because New Orleans had Bird Rights for Asik and Ajinca, re-signing them made some sense. And once they’re re-signed, Gentry must find a role for them. But that could get harder if it becomes obvious the team is best with Davis at center.

As long as Asik and Ajinca are out, Kendrick Perkins probably moves into the rotation. Jeff Adrien could also see minutes at center. Suddenly, Adrien, on an unguaranteed contract, has a much better chance of making the regular-season roster. Ryan Anderson probably plays more at power forward, too, with Davis logging more time at center.