There’s no question that transition D has been a key in the series LAL currently lead 3-2, but the Lakers lost Game 5 102-99 for a different reason: lack of paint protection.
The Nuggets scored 58 of their 102 points in the paint, despite getting only 19 fast break points, meaning Denver repeatedly got to or near the rim despite LAL most often being back on defense, if with some notable exceptions (see: Kenneth Faried layups).
LAL blocked five shots (three by Pau Gasol), but the deep rim protection simply wasn’t there. This in stark contrast to Game 1, for example, when the Lakers swatted 15 shots towards a 15-point win, led by Andrew Bynum’s all-time-playoff-high tying 10 blocks. It’s not a coincidence that in that game, the Nuggets scored only 44 points in the paint to LAL’s 64.
Andre Miller, JaVale McGee and Arron Afflalo may have put a tent up in the Los Angeles paint in Game 5.
“I thought (Denver) came out, they hit first and they continued to hit throughout the course of game,” said Mike Brown. “I thought they were more physical than us … our paint protection on the defense end of the floor is not good right now.”
In LAL’s film room, Bynum may take the lion’s share of the blame, as the discrepancy in not so much his actual blocks but the amount of shots he contested appears quite large from where it could be when he’s at his defensive best (i.e. Game 1). He’s admittedly been frustrated with how difficult it’s been to get the basketball with any space on offense as Denver commits two defenders his way immediately upon the catch, but the Lakers don’t want that to affect his performance on the other end.
The last two times Bynum’s paint defense was notably discussed came at Golden State (March 27) and vs. Oklahoma City (April 22), both resulting in his being benched during crunch time. In a glass half full sense, Bynum’s response to that poor effort against OKC was the Game 1 triple-double against Denver. He wasn’t involved much offensively due to constant double and triple teams, yet made a major impact defensively.
Even with that said, much of Wednesday’s conversation revolved around Bynum’s post-practice comments in which he said that closing out games can be “easy,” which Nuggets coach George Karl ran a mile with prior to Game 4. Bynum’s central point was that if you jump on a team facing elimination early in the game, they can lose motivation … which has actually been true, in a sense, for the Lakers.
LAL had gone 12-1 in close out games since acquiring Pau Gasol, so Bynum was speaking from experience, which goes in contrast to Karl’s 22-24 record as a coach in such close out opportunities (thus his postgame disagreement with Bynum, where he said: “It’s the hardest thing in the world to win the fourth game”).
Kobe Bryant agreed with Bynum (“close out games can be easy sometimes,” in his words), with both conceding that this particular one against Denver obviously was not. Regardless, is bulletin board material really necessary for a team facing elimination?
Bryant wasn’t so sure.
“Did it pump them up? Probably,” he said. “Were they going to come out with that kind of energy anyway? Probably. We didn’t execute. They obviously played harder than we did. So it’s a lesson to learn.”
No matter what, LAL’s fate will be pretty closely associated with how well, or how poorly, Bynum protects the paint.
The next test comes on Thursday night in Denver.