Coming off of less than 48 hours since they escaped the second round with a Game 7 victory, the Los Angeles Lakers persevered and defeated the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center, 105-103. The Lakers looked weary at the start of the game and quickly fell behind the hot shooting Nuggets. Led by Carmelo Anthony, (39 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 blocked shot), the Nuggets ran out to a 10-2 lead. The Lakers played catch-up the entire quarter as the fresher Nuggets exploited the slower-to-react defense. “We just had to push through it, we didn’t come out with the kind of energy we wanted, guys were fatigued, a little tired,” Bryant said. “But it was a gut check for us.” Kenyon Martin, (15 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocked shots), and Nene, (14 points, 5 rebounds), attacked the Lakers frontcourt with power and forceful execution. The Nuggets shot 14-22 in the first period for a blazing 63%. But unlike their recent struggles in the first quarter against the Houston Rockets, the Lakers maintained their poise, and with back-to-back treys from Sasha Vujacic and Shannon Brown, managed to cut the deficit to 31-23 to end the quarter.
The Bench Mob picked up the defensive intensity in the 2nd quarter behind the play of Luke Walton, (5 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds), Jordan Farmar, (5 points, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot), and Josh Powell, (4 points, 1 assist, 1 blocked shot). The Lakers finally took the lead on a pair of Powell free throws with 1:09 left in the half. Denver retook the lead on the next possession on a pair of Anthony free throws, but Kobe Bryant, (40 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 blocked shot), responded with a 15-footer. Martin came back with a ferocious slam dunk off an Anthony feed, but with time running out, Kobe found a wide open Derek Fisher, (13 points, 6 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal), in the corner and the veteran point guard nailed a three pointer as time expired on the clock to give the Lakers a 55-54 halftime lead. Fisher, to that point, had shot a miserable 0-6 from the field. Pau Gasol, (13 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocked shots), and Andrew Bynum, (6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots), both had a difficult time in the first half and were constantly forced to pass out of Denver’s collapsing defense.
The 3rd quarter saw both teams struggling from the field as the defensive intensity increased to a fever pitch. Anthony and Chauncey Billups, (18 points, 8 assists, 1 steal), accounted for 17 of the Nuggets 22 points in the quarter. Key Nuggets reserve, JR Smith, (8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 turnovers), never got untracked and committed a string of bad plays which prevented the Nuggets from taking an even larger lead. The Nuggets settled for a 77-74 lead to end the 3rd quarter. The hot shooting Carmelo Anthony amassed 30 points after the first three quarters and the Nuggets looked confident entering the final period. Kobe kept the Lakers close even though Bynum and Ariza picked up their 4th fouls and Gasol could not find the room to operate. Even Lamar Odom, (7 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocked shots), had difficulty drawing any whistles as his hard drives to the buckets went unrewarded and came up empty.
LO connected on a short, 5-foot hook shot to draw the Lakers within a deuce to start the final stanza, but the Nuggets responded with a 11-6 run to regain control of the game. Denver extended their lead to 89-82 with 7:28 left to play, despite a pair of treys by Kobe and Farmar. But then the Lakers clamped down on Denver, and behind Kobe, who scored 18 points in the quarter, began whittling away at the Nuggets lead. Trevor Ariza, (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists), nailed a three pointer to bring the Lakers to within 94-92. Anthony responded with a layup on a post-up move around Kobe to push the lead back up to 4 points, but Kobe connected on a 21-footer on the next trip down the court. Gasol rejected a Nene attempt, and then Kobe found Fisher open in the corner again after drawing the triple team, and D-Fish calmly drained the trey to give the Lakers a 97-96 lead with 2:30 left in the game. Gasol forced Melo into an offensive foul and on the other end, was fouled on his shot attempt by K-Mart. But Gasol missed both free throws, and on the ensuing play, Billups swished a 27-foot three pointer to put Denver back on top, 99-97. Gasol was able to redeem himself on the next play, hitting two, pressure filled free throws to knot the score. Kobe then took matters into his own hands and forced the Nuggets into fouling him as he penetrated into the lane and made two free throws to give the Lakers a 101-99 lead. Trevor Ariza then made the defensive play of the game, stealing an inbounds pass intended for Billups and dribbled upcourt, denying the Nuggets an opportunity to tie the score. Kobe was fouled again after driving the lane and sank both free throws to make it 103-99. Billups, after apparently stepping out of bounds, hit a deep corner three to pull Denver within 103-102, but the Nuggets were forced to foul and Kobe sealed the come from behind victory with another pair of free throws.
The Lakers shot 41.1% (37-90, 11-25 from distance) from the field and 83.3% (20-24) from the line. They out-rebounded the Nuggets, 46-37, and also recorded 9 blocked shots. Denver, despite their hot hand early, finished at 48.6% (36-74, 8-19 from distance) but shot a miserable 65.7% (23-35) from the charity stripe. This was clearly a victory stolen from out of the hands of defeat. Unlike their lopsided losses to Houston, the Lakers never seemed to be fazed by the Nuggets runs. And on a night when our bigs were outplayed by Denver’s bigs, Kobe came up bigger yet, and again proved why he is the most deadly closer on the planet.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
6 full days of rest, evaluation and practice-time for the Denver Nuggets. An afternoon practice session on Monday and a Tuesday morning shoot-around for the Los Angeles Lakers. Media and fans alike were calling for a Denver Nuggets victory over the undeserving Los Angeles Lakers. But it was the Lakers who showed true grit and determination in Game 1, clutching the victory after Denver had maintained control of the game for over 3-1/2 quarters. It was the Lakers who played big and made big plays at the end to take a 1-0 Western Conference Finals lead. But there is little time to celebrate and recuperate, as the next game is scheduled for Thursday evening at Staples Center. Expect the Nuggets to come out even more intense and focused after giving this one away. But I also expect our bigs to bring a better contribution in Game 2 as well.
The effort level of the Lakers in tonight’s game was never in question. Unfortunately, their physical stamina and execution were suspect. But that was to be expected, coming off such short notice following their Game 7 win on Sunday. Gasol in particular seemed unable to generate any type of steam or momentum behind his play, and the active Nuggets were able to attack him throughout the night. But his rejection on Nene was huge and allowed the Lakers to thwart the Nuggets from regaining the lead. Bynum was sidled with foul trouble again, but his presence alone played a huge role in clogging up the middle. The Lakers played Billups extremely well off the high screen and roll, and although he dished for eight assists, he shot only 5-13 (2-7 three pointers) and was clearly frustrated with his inability to shake either the bigger defenders in Kobe and Trevor. D-Fish again proved why Phil Jackson relies on him so heavily. His ability to take, and make key shots is the reason why Kobe searches for him when he is double- or triple-teamed. Game 2 remains the key to this series. If the Lakers can manage to withstand another valiant effort by the Nuggets and take a 2-0 lead, all of the pressure falls back onto the inexperienced foes from the Mile High city. But any slip in play by the Lakers, and this becomes a dogfight with the fresher Nuggets taking an advantage in the series heading for home and the Lakers running for oxygen.