The Los Angeles Lakers arrived at the Pepsi Center for Game 6 with their game faces on, and proceeded to dismantle the Denver Nuggets, 119-92. With the win, the Lakers took the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals, 4-2, and qualified for a return visit to the NBA Finals. Their opponent remains to be seen with the Orlando Magic holding a 3-2 Eastern Conference Finals lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers outscored the Nuggets in all four quarters, silencing the crowd and their critics. Kobe Bryant led all scorers, (35 points on 12-20, 9-9 from the line, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, 1 blocked shot), but got a big hand from Trevor Ariza in the early-going, (17 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal), Lamar Odom in the middle periods, (20 points, 8 rebounds, 1 assist), and Pau Gasol late in the game, (20 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 1 blocked shot). Derek Fisher, (32 minutes, 5 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists), played excellent defense on Chauncey Billups, (10 points on 2-7, 9 assists, 4 rebounds), forcing him into hurried shots and difficult looks at the basket. Luke Walton, (25 minutes, 10 points, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 rebound, 1 blocked shot), was effective after being pressed into action when Ariza picked up his 4th foul early in the 3rd quarter. Denver was led by Carmelo Anthony, (25 points on 6-17, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal), JR Smith, (24 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal), and Kenyon Martin, (13 points, 5 rebounds), but got little help from anyone else.
The Lakers came out clearly aggressive to start the game and exhibited their defensive prowess with pure, uninhibited perfection. Denver, on the other hand, came out soft and Nuggets coach George Karl wasted little time and immediately inserted Smith into the lineup. But the Lakers maintained their poise and were led by the veteran leadership of both Kobe and Fisher. The Lakers executed each possession with quiet calmness and textbook precision. Trevor ignited the Lakers with 10 points in the quarter, as the Nuggets, and Melo in particular, decided to slack off of him in favor of the double-team on Bryant. He burned the Nuggets with a pair of three pointers, a running jumper in the lane, and a spectacular corkscrew jam off the give-and-go from Bryant in the post. With Andrew Bynum, (2 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 blocked shot), picking up 2 early fouls, LO came off the bench and continued his recent, solid play. LO forced the issue inside, scoring on a short 7-footer and a layup to keep the Lakers game plan on track.
Denver opened the 2nd quarter with a 11-5 run behind Melo and JR Smith to take a brief, 31-30 lead. But the Lakers answered with a 9-2 run to regain control of the contest. They followed that with a 14-7 run to push the lead to 53-40 to end the period. Kobe accounted for 11 of those points scoring on a pair of free throws, a 13-foot pull up, a 22-footer with Smith in his jersey, a 21-footer with time running out on the shot clock, and a devastating trey from the corner to close out the first half. The Nuggets left the floor demoralized and searching for answers. With Dahntay Jones, (13 minutes, 2 points, 1 rebound), riding the pine in favor of Smith, the Nuggets were left without a true defender on Kobe. Denver decided that they needed offense from Smith instead of containing Bryant. Smith slacked off of Kobe and allowed him to take uncontested, high percentage shots.
The 3rd quarter started with both teams matching basket for basket. The Nuggets relied on double teaming Kobe to limit his looks, but Walton and Gasol found themselves the recipients of open looks and made the Nuggets pay for their collapsing defense on Bryant. The Lakers used a 15-12 run to end the period to extend their lead after three quarters to 83-67. The Nuggets were clearly in panic mode, unable to make any stops on the hot shooting Lakers. Sasha Vujacic, (7 points on 1-2, 4-4 from the line, 1 rebound), found himself on the receiving end as Denver fouled him in an attempt to stymie the tide. Sasha, to his credit, nailed the free throw opportunities and hopefully, rediscovered his confidence.
The 4th quarter started with a desperate barrage of long range attempts by the Nuggets to try to get themselves back into the game. Three pointers by Linas Kleiza, Melo and Billups got the crowd excited, but the Lakers matched the Nuggets again, and after a dagger trey by Kobe, the Lakers held a 101-82 advantage with 6:13 left in the game. Once again, Shannon Brown, (8 minutes, 3 points, 1 assist), was a defensive spark plug off the bench, further harassing Billups and converting 3-3 free throws after being fouled on a three point attempt. The Lakers closed out the game and the series with a 16-7 run, capped by a LO three pointer to put the cherry on top of their Western Conference crown. The Lakers shot 57.3% for the game, out-rebounded Denver 38-27, and garnered 28 assists to Denver’s 14. The Lakers also converted on 24-24 free throw attempts and got solid play from the Bench Mob, outscoring Denver’s bench, 40-34. Every player that participated in tonight’s victory contributed and played a part in the win. Jordan Farmar, (8 minutes, 0 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound), helped keep the Lakers on par while D-Fish got his rest. The NBA Finals begin on Thursday, June 4, providing the Lakers with ample time for some much needed rest and recuperation. If Cleveland can manage to win Game 6 on the road, Game 7 of that series will be played on Monday.
dEDGE Post Scriptum
You gotta love how the Lakers answered the bell to start the game. This was a heavyweight bout and the Lakers clearly scored the knockout early by limiting Chauncey’s looks and forcing the Nuggets to scramble in an attempt to contain their ball movement. Kobe proved why he is the premiere go-to guy in the league. Lebron may destroy his opposition with his sheer power, but Bryant’s ability to score from any angle, convert on pressure-filled free throws, and find open teammates makes him the complete player and in my opinion, the true MVP. This award should be presented after the playoffs when the stakes are at their highest. If the writers had to recast their ballots now, who do you think would win? Lebron’s inability to hit key free throws down the stretch is the difference between himself and Kobe.
Jerry West, the logo himself, basically recanted on his previous statement that Lebron James had surpassed Kobe as the game’s best player. He commented on The Jim Rome Show, “I said something that I wish I wouldn’t have said, to be honest with you, because it was in no way demeaning to Kobe Bryant. I love his passion. I want him to win a championship without Shaquille O’Neal because I think it would vindicate him in some respect. Late in a game, who are you going to take to make a shot, who are you going to take in the last quarter of a game? Kobe Bryant’s still the best in the league.” Can anyone argue with that comment? Does anyone truly believe that Lebron’s the man, and Kobe’s lost it? Magic Johnson called out the Lakers for a lack of effort. Multitudes of Lakers fans have cried out admonishing this team for its softness and lack of a killer instinct. The national media predicted that Denver wold blow out the Lakers tonight, forcing a do-or-die Game 7. And through three rounds of the NBA Playoffs, here we sit, atop as Western Conference champions again, full of confidence and gelling at precisely the right moment.
The Lakers have quietly built up their momentum heading into the Finals. Utah was a tune-up. Houston tested the Lakers mental toughness. And Denver proved that the Lakers can play with anyone in a physical series. The engine is humming, the blood is boiling, and the Lakers are playing at peak performance. Jerry West summed it up best and I’ve been saying this all along. “I’m an unabashed Laker fan.”