With a spring in their step and a new glimmer of confidence in their eyes, the Denver Nuggets stole home court advantage by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, 106-103. The Nuggets tied the series at one game apiece by executing in the final minutes when the game was still up for grabs. Chauncey Billups, (27 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds), converted 3-4 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory. Denver was paced again by Carmelo Anthony, (34 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), as he riddled the Lakers defense with strong moves around the basket and an unstoppable perimeter game. But it was the Lakers who initially came out strong as they went on a 19-8 run midway through the 1st quarter to take a 29-20 lead. A Linas Kleiza trey, (16 points, 8 rebounds), momentarily stopped the run, but Kobe Bryant, (32 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), closed out the period with a pair of free throws to make it 31-23.
The Lakers increased their lead to 41-27 to open the 2nd period behind a 10-4 run. Denver called time out to regroup and to try to stop the bleeding. And the Nuggets responded behind Anthony, who scored the next 13 points. The Lakers managed to keep pace with the hot shooting of Melo behind Andrew Bynum, (9 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), Trevor Ariza, (20 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals), and Bryant. But Denver closed the quarter on a 14-2 run of their own, cutting the Lakers once 14 point lead all the way down to a single point going into the half, 55-54. Kleiza and Billups each drained a three pointer and converted on a pair of free throws to lead the Nuggets comeback. Instead of going into the intermission with a commanding and demoralizing lead, the Lakers allowed the Nuggets to regain their confidence and take over the momentum.
The teams played to a draw in the 3rd quarter, exchanging baskets and free throws. The Lakers extended their lead to seven points at 71-64 after a three point play by Ariza. But the Nuggets kept fighting and eventually closed the gap back to one point. Billups continued his march to the free throw line (13-16), as did Anthony, (10-14). Ariza led the way for the Lakers with 11 points in the period. And with Pau Gasol, (17 points, 17 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocked shots, 4 turnovers), controlling the boards, the Lakers appeared to have weathered the worst of the storm heading into the final stanza. Denver immediately pounced on the Lakers to start the 4th quarter and took their first lead of the game on a Kleiza three pointer, 85-82. Denver would outscore the Lakers 11-6, to grab a 91-84 lead with 8:56 left in the game. Kobe responded with a deep three of his own with Melo in his jersey to narrow the gap to 91-87. Shannon Brown, (8 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist), followed that up with a triple of his own, and after a pair of Lamar Odom free throws, (10 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocked shots), the Lakers retook the lead at 93-91 with 5:47 remaining in the contest.
Missed free throws, poor offensive execution and shoddy defense allowed the Nuggets to bully their way to the victory. The Lakers played poorly on defense, looking to the officials for whistles that never came. On consecutive possessions, they had managed to keep the Nuggets scrambling on their offensive sets, only to bail them out with time running out on the shot clock. They committed careless fouls on Billups driving into the lane, and when Denver missed a shot, it was the Nuggets who corralled the offensive rebounds for easy put-backs. Pau missed a pair of crucial free throws when the score was knotted at 95-95. Kobe valiantly carried the Lakers with a trey, then a pull up 9-footer to tie the score at 101-101. After a bucket by Kenyon Martin, (16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists), Kobe tried to split through a double team, lost control of the ball, and the play ended up with Gasol and Billups scrambling on the floor, which resulted in a jump ball. Gasol controlled the tip to Ariza, who then stumbled over Odom’s foot and tried to pass the ball out before being called for traveling. But his pass was intercepted by Nene, (6 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), and the Nuggets regained possession of the ball with the lead at 103-101. Billups, was again fouled driving to the hoop and calmly sank his two free throws to give Denver a 105-101 lead with 0:13 seconds to play. Gasol converted two free throws at the other end after he was fouled by Martin on his drive to the basket to pull the Lakers within a deuce. And when Billups missed one of two free throws on the ensuing play, the Lakers were left with a chance to tie the game with 0:04 seconds left in the game. Derek Fisher, (3 points on 1-9, 3 assists, 1 rebound, 1 steal), took a hurried three point attempt off of a curl play that fell well short of the mark as time expired.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
I won’t delve into the poor shooting of Derek Fisher tonight. Enough folks out there are already pounding this one to death. And although his performance was definitely lacking, his play alone did not add up to the Lakers misery tonight. It’s easy to point out deficiencies in a player when he misses shots or has numerous turnovers. But I feel the Lakers lost this game on the defensive end. I may be alone on this, but I was extremely disappointed with the defensive play of Pau Gasol. He was a step slow on every reaction play, failing to put himself in proper position to grab a loose ball or to help out on a defensive breakdown. And when he wasn’t complaining to the referees, he was getting beaten repeatedly when it counted the most. Sure, his box scores may indicate that he had a relatively good game, but he also had 4 turnovers when the Nuggets bullied him into coughing up the ball.
Playoff basketball is intense. And as the stakes rise, so does the physical play. We all know what happened in Boston last year and how we were labeled as a soft team. Flopping on a one-on-four, out of control layup attempt by Billups, that resulted in a Kenyon Martin put-back because we couldn’t secure the rebound is not my idea of playing tough. Constantly being pushed out of the post, then being man-handled in the box is not the way to secure a hard nosed victory. Pau needs to stop complaining and looking to the referees for help. Chauncey Billups has brought a Detroit Pistons mentality to this Denver team. He knows firsthand how to frustrate the Lakers, and that is by playing hard and physical. His teammates have bought into this mentality and have forced the Lakers to play their style of ball. Kobe brings it every game. But when our second leading scorer plays the way he does, it’s hard to light a fire under the rest of the team when your co-leader is coasting. Pau took 8 shots and made 5. He should have taken 20 shots. But when the defense is more aggressive than you, more times than not, you are going to pass out and let another teammate take the shot. Bynum took 8 shots and he played only 18 minutes compared to the 44 minutes that Gasol logged.
I can only hope that the uncomfortable confines of the Pepsi Center will knock some sense into our talented Spaniard. Pau has got to set the tone from the start, not just for Andrew or Sasha’s sake, but for himself. We cannot succeed without him taking it to another level. Kobe is cognizant of this and he raises his game as we move deeper into the playoffs. But for some reason, Gasol has settled into playing his own way and as a result, has regressed. This is not Memphis, nor is this Houston, where we’re just happy to make it out of the first round. This is Los Angeles and we expect much more and have much loftier expectations. Lakers fans are frustrated by a perceived lack of effort and inconsistency. To me, the problem is crystal clear, and clearly fixable. But it will require a change of heart and a change in attitude. Otherwise, it is going to be another long and unfulfilled offseason. And I’m not even going to mention his missed free throws down the stretch.