Capitalizing on numerous second chance opportunities, the Denver Nuggets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers at the Pepsi Center, 120-101. The Nuggets thoroughly controlled the boards, out-rebounding the Lakers, 58-40 overall and 20-9 on the offensive end. As a result, Denver was able to get second and third chances and withstood the valiant efforts of Kobe Bryant, (34 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists), and Pau Gasol, (21 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocked shots). JR Smith, (24 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 2 steals), and Chauncey Billups, (24 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), led the resurgent Nuggets in evening up the series at two games apiece. But it was the work of Denver’s frontline that was the difference in tonight’s affair. Nene, (14 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists), Kenyon Martin, (13 points, 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots), and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, (6 points, 14 rebounds, 2 blocked shots) paced the Nuggets win by controlling the boards. Denver’s trio out-rebounded the entire Lakers squad by themselves, 42-40.
Carmelo Anthony, slowed by illness before the game, managed only 15 points on 3-16 shooting. But he wasn’t needed tonight as the Nuggets ran down every loose ball and errant carom off the glass. The Lakers kept pace with the Nuggets through the first half, trailing only 22-19 after the 1st quarter. But missed free throws prevented the Lakers from ever taking the lead other than a brief 1-0 opening minute of play. Kenyon Martin paced the Nuggets with 9 points in the opening stanza as Denver established an 18-7 lead. But the Lakers, behind Kobe’s 9 points as well, cut the deficit in the final two minutes of play to keep them close. Melo for his part, ended the quarter 0-8. Denver started the 2nd quarter with a 17-5 run to push the lead up to 39-24 with 6:52 left in the first half. Denver grabbed 7 offensive rebounds in the period and looked to be the fresher of the two teams. Andrew Bynum, (14 points, 5 rebounds, 1 blocked shot), made a short hook shot in the lane, followed by a Kobe 19-foot baseline turnaround plus one to draw the Lakers back within 39-29. And with Melo continuing to shoot poorly, the Lakers used a 11-6 run to end the half trailing by only seven points, 52-45.
Pau started the 3rd quarter with a traditional 3-point play followed by a trey by Trevor Ariza and another bucket by Gasol, to narrow the gap to 56-53. But the Nuggets went out on a 12-3 run to extend their lead back up to double digits at 68-56. The teams traded baskets the rest of the period with neither squad shooting particularly well. Denver countered its cold shooting with numerous trips to the free throw line where they shot 37-49 for 75.5%. And these were the result of the Nuggets desire to attack the basket. The Lakers settled for long jump shots where they were a dismal 9-31 from behind the arc for a paltry 29%. The calls or non-calls, seemed to favor the Nuggets, especially on one offensive set where Kobe, who had beat his defender and made his cut to the basket, was intentionally tripped by Dahntay Jones. Jones, as seen on the replay, clearly stuck his leg out and caught Bryant, who tumbled to the floor. But no call was made and Denver regained possession of the ball. A deep three pointer by JR Smith pushed the lead up to 77-63 with just over a minute left to play and had the Denver fans leaping to their feet applauding their team’s effort.
Kobe started the 4th quarter on the bench and Denver continued its hold on the game behind Andersen, Billups and Linas Kleiza, (10 points, 2 rebounds). The Lakers made one last run at the Nuggets, and when Sasha Vujacic, (6 points, 1 rebound), splashed his second trey of the night, they had cut the lead back down to ten points at 89-79 with 6:58 left in the contest. Kobe entered the game a few seconds later and scored the Lakers next 13 of 15 points. But Denver maintained its lead with more trips to the free throw line. Denver sealed the victory with a 16-7 run sandwiched with a pair of Smith three pointers to end the threat and tie up the series. The Bench Mob was outscored by their Denver counterparts, 42-24. Lamar Odom, (5 points on 1-8, 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 3 turnovers), and Ariza, (3 points on 1-4, 1 rebound, 1 assist), were both ineffective and failed to provide the Lakers with any offensive spark. The bench shot a miserable 7-27 and 5-10 from the line. As a team, the Lakers shot only 41.5% from the field and 68.6% from the charity stripe. Denver had 7 players post double figures and committed only 6 turnovers. But the damage was clearly done on the boards where the Lakers failed to block out, providing the Nuggets with an unimpeded lane to easy tip-ins and second chance opportunities. Game 5 is scheduled for Wednesday night back at Staples Center.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
Lack of effort may not be the clear cut culprit for this loss. The game can be more effectively summed up as poor fundamental execution. Boxing out your man is taught in grade school. “Rebounds = Rings” was the rallying cry for Pat Riley and his Showtime Lakers. Securing rebounds with both hands is how the great post players of the past ensured that a pesky smaller player could not dislodge the ball from your grips. On a night when the Lakers had an opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Western Conference Finals, it was the Nuggets instead who showed the grit and determination to extend the series. Denver’s win tonight guaranteed a return trip back to the Pepsi Center for Game 6. Should the Lakers hold home court on Wednesday, this cakewalk now appears to be a 7-game series. The only silver lining is that Denver must win one game at Staples Center to advance to their first Finals appearance. We can only hope that the Lakers can once again regroup and reestablish their dominance at home.
Houston had poked holes into the Lakers aura of invincibility and now the once dysfunctional Nuggets have broken serious gaps into the levee. The Lakers were not out-played tonight, merely out-worked. Calls have a tendency to favor the aggressors, and it was the Nuggets who flexed their muscles tonight and had the Lakers on their heels. Both LO and Ariza had awful nights, almost appearing non-existent on the floor. Perhaps their ailments are more bothersome than we are led to believe. Ariza is banged up with a hip pointer and groin pull. Odom is still suffering the effects from his back contusion against the Rockets. But that leaves the rest of the team responsible to help share the load. We shouldn’t have to rely on a passionate 4th quarter speech to grab a defensive rebound. Nor should the coaching staff need to implore the team to box out their man when the shot goes up. These are fundamentals that are inherent with competing and winning.
Maybe we really do miss Tex Winter and his acerbic wit prodding the team on with his stinging commentary. Perhaps Phil is incapable of playing the role of the bad guy. But this blogger has made a solemn commitment to provide a positive twist on the games regardless of the outcome or how poorly things may look. There is enough negative energy out there without me having to pile onto the fracas. The Lakers went into Denver to reclaim home court advantage. This mission was accomplished. That we should hold this Lakers squad to near perfection on every occasion is both unrealistic and impossible. We don’t have a Big Game James or a Cap to throw the ball into for a sure basket. We surely don’t have a Cooper or a Byron Scott to capitalize on sagging defenses. But what we do have is perhaps the single, greatest individual performer in Kobe Bryant, who is surrounded by a talented, although second tier cast of characters. Gasol managed to uphold his part, and to a lesser degree, so did a recovering Andrew Bynum. But when the rest of the team lays an egg, we have no choice but to say, “nice job Denver, see ya on Wednesday.”
Cleveland, holders of the best record in the league faired no better. They trail the Orlando Magic, 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Mo Williams, savior of the regular season, has struggled throughout, leaving MVP Lebron James carrying the load by himself. Is Orlando better than Denver? Are the Lakers still the favorites to win it all? Only time will tell in this most unusual 2009 post-season. But I still like our chances and if I were a betting man, I’d put up the house and the kids with the dog on the Lakers to take it all. But I’ll keep the wife just in case I’m wrong because I’ll need someone to constantly remind me of my error and how I should have known all along that everyone else was right and I was rendered color blind by those purple and gold shades.