Tied after each of the first three quarters, the Los Angeles Lakers utilized an 11-0 run to begin the 4th quarter that carried them to the Game 5 victory over the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center, 103-94. Lamar Odom had 8 points in the decisive final quarter and finished the game with an impressive, overall stat line, (19 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocked shots, 3 assists). His thunderous slam over Birdman in the early part of the 4th quarter sparked the win even though the Lakers came out less than impressive to start the game. Denver appeared more as the seasoned playoff squad as they methodically took it to the Lakers. The Nuggets ran out to a 10-4 lead behind Chauncey Billups, (12 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals), and Kenyon Martin, (12 points, 5 rebounds), but the Lakers managed to stay within striking distance by relying on their role players. Derek Fisher, (12 points, 2 assists), Andrew Bynum, (9 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist), and Trevor Ariza, (12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocked shots, 1 steal), kept the Lakers going in the period as Kobe Bryant, (22 points,8 assists, 5 rebounds, 1 steal), had an uncharacteristic 7 turnovers in the contest. The Lakers managed to take a brief 25-23 lead on a Jordan Farmar jumper, but Anthony Carter got free for an 8-foot jump shot to knot the score at 25-25 at the end of the 1st quarter.
Both teams started shaky in the 2nd period with numerous turnovers and poor shot selection. With 4:45 left in the period, the score was still tied at 38-38. After the teams traded baskets, Denver went on a 9-4 run to give themselves a 49-44 lead. But Kobe began to heat up and scored the next 5 points to draw the Lakers to within 51-49 with 1:19 left in the half. Carter hit a trey to give the Nuggets a 5 point cushion, but Pau Gasol, (14 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocked shots, 4 assists, 2 steals), scored on a layup followed by an Odom hook shot in the lane to close to within 54-53. Carmelo Anthony, (31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals), converted on a pair of free throws to give the Nuggets a 3 point lead, but with the Lakers holding the ball for the final shot, Kobe drove down the lane, drew the triple team and found Sasha Vujacic, (3 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist), alone in the corner for the game tying three pointer to end the half knotted at 56-56.
Denver ran off on a 15-8 run to open the 3rd quarter behind Anthony and Dahntay Jones, (9 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal). Pau’s dunk with 6:16 left in the period drew the Lakers to 71-66, and then the Lakers proceeded to put the defensive brakes onto the Nuggets offense. Gasol started the the halt with a block on a Jones dunk attempt. Ariza followed that up with a flying swat on a Melo jumper from just inside the free throw line and dove for the ball in an attempt to save it from going out of bounds. Instead, Ariza found himself upside down behind the courtside seats and rising to a rousing ovation. Denver kept possession of the ball and with hounding defense by Shannon Brown, (6 points), Billups threw the ball away to the Lakers. Gasol led the fast break and fed a streaking Brown for a monster jam over the Birdman. Staples Center erupted as the Lakers bench spilled onto the court in celebration. Brown forced Billups into another turnover, and when Melo was called for travelling the next time down, the Lakers capitalized on Denver’s miscues with an LO three pointer to tie the score at 73-73. Denver called time out and set up a play for Billups, who calmly sank a three pointer of his own to push the lead back up to three points. But Kobe responded with a deep 27-footer off the curl and tied the score at 76-76 with 2:06 left in the 3rd period. Neither team would score again in the quarter as the Lakers defense responded again with an Odom block on a driving Chris Andersen, (2 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocked shots).
Combined with the last 2:24 of the 3rd period, the Lakers held Denver scoreless for the first 4:48 of the 4th quarter. A pair of Melo free throws stopped the drought, but Gasol responded with a 10-foot hook shot to give the Lakers an 89-78 advantage. Linas Kleiza, (10 points, 5 rebounds), entered the game and immediately sank a three pointer. Free throws by Gasol pushed the lead back up to ten points, but Kleiza scored on a hard driving layup, then added two free throws after he was fouled by Odom to draw the Nuggets to 91-85. Melo was fed by Billups and scored on a dunk to cut the lead to 91-87 with 4:26 left to play. After exchanged free throws by Gasol and Melo, Ariza fed the ball into post, cut baseline and got the dish from Gasol, then made an acrobatic layup plus the foul to give the Lakers a 96-89 lead. Three consecutive blocked shots by Gasol, Odom and Ariza kept the Nuggets from coming back. And after desperate, long distance bombs by Billups and JR Smith, (7 points on 3-13, 1-10 from distance, 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals), fell short of the mark, the Lakers were still left with their seven point lead intact with only 1:31 left on the clock. The Lakers secured the win by making their free throws down the stretch, connecting on 13-15 in the 4th quarter. The Lakers travel back to Denver for Game 6 on Friday at the Pepsi Center.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
LO showed up big-time tonight. His aggressiveness against the bullying Nuggets frontline finally paid off, and he too acknowledged that his effort was sorely missing in the previous games. “You know, I won’t make no excuse about playing well or not playing well. If my back is hurt or isn’t hurt, I’m just going to go out there and give it 100 percent. In that time, in that moment you’re caught up in the game. Sometimes aggression just comes out and it came out with a scream after that dunk.” The Lakers outscored Denver, 27-18 in the 4th quarter by playing outstanding defense and limiting the Nuggets’ scoring opportunities. The Nuggets were forced into taking ill-advised three pointers as the 24-second clock ran down to its last, few precious seconds. Odom cited communication as the key to the Lakers defensive stops in the 4th quarter. That and not allowing second chance opportunities, which the Nuggets had thrived on in Game 4.
Shannon Brown’s 14 minutes of action produced only 6 points, but his spirited defense on Billups forced the normally collected point guard into costly turnovers at the end of the 3rd period. His highlight film dunk on Birdman catapulted the Lakers and gave them new life and energy that spread to the entire team. Tonight’s win was a collective team effort, and on a night when Kobe coughed up the ball as much as he did, it was the others who took up the challenge and responded with perhaps their best game of the series. Denver appeared poised to steal this game from the Lakers and after three quarters, it was still anyone’s game. But the Bench Mob came to the rescue and sent Denver home with a do-or-die Game 6 scenario. Kobe recognized his difficulties driving into the lane and instead, pulled the ball out and ran the high screen and roll with Pau Gasol. Denver obliged by extending far out on defense in an attempt to contain Kobe, only to see him pass out of the double team and find secondary cutters for high percentage shots.
Can the Lakers put together another gut-retching win in Denver? Or will this series go the distance and extend to seven games? The Lakers have a chance to close out the Nuggets and get some much needed rest and recuperation before the Finals begin. With Orlando holding a 3-1 Eastern Conference Finals lead over Cleveland, the Lakers could use all the rest that they can get. Odom and Ariza in particular, could use the time to heal. And Kobe appears to be fading ever so slightly as the series marches on. We will need another solid team contribution on Friday to take the Western Conference crown. But this is no time to rest on one’s laurels or coast with the knowledge that Game 7 is at home. Denver has proved that they will not go away quietly and Game 6 has all the drama building up to a gunfight at dusk. It will be up to the Lakers to draw first and slam the door shut on Denver’s season once and for all.