Another timely Trevor Ariza steal in the closing minute of play secured the win for the Los Angeles Lakers over the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center, 103-97. Ariza, (16 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 blocked shot), side-swiped Carmelo Anthony on an inbounds pass from Kenyon Martin, (6 points on 3-10, 7 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, 1 assist), with the Lakers clinging to a 97-95 lead with 0:36 seconds left to play. Anthony, (21 points on 4-13, 1-7 from deep, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 4 turnovers), was forced to commit the foul, his 6th of the contest which sent him to the bench for the dramatic finish. Ariza converted his two foul shots and gave the Lakers a four-point cushion. Kobe Bryant, (41 points on 12-24, 15-17 from the line, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals), led all players in scoring and sealed the win with 5-6 free throws down the stretch. Pau Gasol, (20 points on 7-12, 6-8 from the line, 11 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 blocked shot), provided the added punch for the Lakers, who took a 2-1 series lead with the much needed road win after their collapse in Game 2 at Staples Center.
The pace of the game from the onset favored the defensively minded Lakers. They came out aggressive and committed in their coverage and forced the Nuggets into low percentage shots. Denver, coming off their emotional win in Los Angeles, appeared a bit over-confident and obliged the Lakers by taking the bait by trying to win the game from outside. On the first possession of the game, Andrew Bynum, (7 points in 21 minutes of action, 4 rebounds, 3 blocked shots), rejected a Martin running jumper to set the defensive tone for the game. But Melo stood up to the challenge and proceeded to drop in 14 points in the period. Chauncey Billups, (18 points on 5-15, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 4 turnovers), was hounded by Derek Fisher and coughed up the ball which resulted in a Ariza layup that allowed the Lakers to keep pace with the Nuggets. And when Lamar Odom, (8 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist), scored on a driving layup, the Lakers had pulled to within 28-26 to end the 1st quarter.
With Kobe on the bench to start the 2nd period, Sasha Vujacic, (3 points on 1-4 in 12 minutes of action, 2 rebounds, 1 blocked shot), committed a careless foul followed by a turnover to allow the Nuggets to run off six straight points and push the lead up to 36-24. But the Lakers responded with a 13-5 run to knot the score at 39-39 with 4:18 left in the period. Chris “Birdman” Andersen, (15 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocked shots), was active off the bench for the Nuggets and provided them with a lift, scoring on uncontested opportunities under the basket. The Lakers were focusing their attention on Melo and Billups, and the Birdman took advantage on backdoor cuts to the basket. The Lakers closed the half with an Ariza trey and a technical foul shot by Bryant to pull within 52-48 at intermission. Denver continued to look for the knockout punch with the long ball throughout the first half, but this fell right into the Lakers game plan who sealed up their porous Game 1 & 2 interior defense.
Dahntay Jones, (10 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal), finally got untracked in the series and scored 8 points in the 3rd quarter. The Nuggets tried to distance themselves with the long ball only to find the Lakers capitalizing on their misses and crawling back into the contest each time they made a run. Kobe made difficult shot after shot to keep the Lakers within striking distance. Denver continued to clang three point attempts (5-27) which provided the Lakers with enough wiggle room to continue fighting back. Denver closed the third with a 11-4 run with Billups and JR Smith, (10 points on 4-15, 6 assists, 3 rebounds), finally connecting on a trio of long distance treys. Denver took the momentum swinging 79-71 lead but a careless taunting technical foul was called on Smith as the quarter came to a close.
Kobe calmly dropped the freebie to open the 4th period, and the Lakers defense proceeded to clamp down on the Nuggets. A Pau Gasol power dunk followed by two more free throws brought the Lakers to within 80-78. And when Ariza splashed a three pointer from downtown, the Lakers had regained the lead at 81-80 with 7:31 left in the game. The teams exchanged leads as Kobe, then a pair of Martin buckets swayed the advantage in the other direction. But Ariza came up big again with another three pointer to push the Lakers ahead again at 86-85. Billups nailed a three of his own to reclaim the lead but Gasol made two tough perimeter jumpers followed by a Kobe runner in the lane to give them a 92-91 advantage with 3:05 left on the clock. Melo converted a pair of free throws to bump them up yet again, and when Odom connected on 1-2 free throws, the score was tied and the Nuggets faithful were biting their nails and screaming “Beat LA!.” Smith made a big 11-footer in heavy traffic to retake the lead, 95-93. But as always, Kobe came up clutch again, stabbing the Nuggets right in the heart with a 24-foot three pointer over a draping JR Smith that splashed right through the net and sank the upstart Nuggets once and for all.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Kobe played huge tonight, which we have come to expect. Trevor’s miraculous steal in the closing moments sealed the deal for a second time in the series. But kudos must be extended to Pau Gasol, who played bigger than his 7-foot frame had ever allowed him. I had been pretty critical of his recent play and felt that his “lack” of fire and energy had cost the Lakers in Game 2 and narrowly avoided another home loss in Game 1. Tonight, Pau played to his strengths and exploited the smaller Nuggets frontline by drawing the defenders out of the paint and facing up on them. He was able to utilize his quickness and ball handling abilities away from the blindside double team, and adeptly maneuvered around Denver’s bigs. Pau scored 8 points in the 4th quarter and also added 4 rebounds while holding both Nene and Birdman scoreless in the period.
If we can get that type of production from Pau, the Nuggets have no answer to stop him. His aggressiveness on the offensive end resulted in 12 shot attempts and 8 trips to the free throw line. And with Bynum managing to stay on the court for longer stints in tonight’s contest, Gasol was able to concentrate solely on his defensive assignment without having to worry about another Denver big sneaking into the lane. Perhaps Pau has finally come to realize the importance of bringing his all each and every game. His stats usually reflect a good all around game, but in the playoffs the stakes are much higher and the miscues are greatly magnified. Pau needs to be a 20-10 guy to keep the opponent honest. It provides Kobe with much greater freedom to attack his defender if the Denver bigs cannot leave Gasol to help out. His rejuvenated play tonight was a welcome and much needed revival of a stagnant Lakers offense that had relied solely on the brilliance of Kobe’s ability to make big shot after big shot.
Not to be lost in all of the heroics of tonight’s win was the play of the Bench Mob. Although their box score only reflects a modest contribution, they stifled the Nuggets with their defensive intensity and provided a key lift in helping to slow both Melo and Billups. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown took turns in making life miserable for a penetrating Billups, who was forced to pass out on his forays to the hoop. LO and Luke Walton frustrated Anthony to the tune of only 3 points in the second half. And Kenyon Martin returned back to earth after his offensive outbursts in the first two games of the series. Denver shot a horrid 39.3% from the field and an even worse, 18.5% from behind the arc. The Lakers were the recipients of 45 free throw attempts due to their constant onslaught at the rim and had they made more than their 68.9%, this game would have been over much earlier. Game 4 is Monday and will again prove to be a huge test for the Lakers. If they can manage to eke out another win on the road, it would put a stranglehold on the Nuggets hopes of advancing. Tonight, all the Nuggets can do, is look in the mirror and shake their heads in disbelief. The Lakers came in as the underdog, retook home court advantage, and lit the fuse for the implosion to come.