Not Quite Gold, But Lakers Prevail
Billed as the proverbial statement game more for the defending World Champion Los Angeles Lakers than for the second-place Denver Nuggets, the Lakers finally prevailed, 95-89 at Staples Center in a Sunday matinee showdown. Not quite as good as a gold medal performance, nevertheless thank goodness for my DVR, otherwise this post-game analysis might not be entirely accurate… With the Olympic gold medal hockey game between the USA and Canada starting minutes before the Lakers-Nuggets tip-off, I had to quickly decide which I would watch live and which would have to wait until later. For those of you who care, Team Canada won, 3-2 on a Sidney Crosby goal at the 7:40 mark of overtime after the USA had tied the score at 2-2 with 24 seconds left to go in regulation. Denver on the other hand, convincing victors in their last two meetings with the Lakers, came out almost buoyant, full of confidence and attitude befit of a would-be champion. Los Angeles for their part, finally appeared cognizant of the fact that the Nuggets are nipping at their heels and may pose to be a problem come playoff time.
Chauncey Billips (17 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal) continued his dominant play from the perimeter as Carmelo Anthony (21 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal) took care of everywhere else, scoring inside, from the charity stripe and from beyond the arc. The Lakers started their attack from the inside out, feeding Pau Gasol (15 points, 14 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 blocked shot) often and early. Denver was able to establish an early 18-10 lead behind their scrambling defense and the help of numerous Laker turnovers. Kobe Bryant (14 points on 3-17, 5 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 blocked shots, 1 steal) penetrated the lane and was able to convert on a difficult layup to momentarily stem the tide, but Denver was able to create an uptempo environment as Nene (14 points, 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists) became the prime recipient by simply running the floor. Ron Artest (17 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals) battled Anthony in the post and came up with a steal and breakaway dunk, then followed it up with a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 20-17. JR Smith (7 points on 3-12, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals) drained a trey of his own as the two teams began to settle into their offenses. A technical foul was called on Kobe after Smith appeared to wrap up Bryant in the paint resulting in a 26-21 lead with 1:13 remaining in the first period. Billips subsequent trey pushed the lead up to 8 points to close the opening stanza in favor of the Nuggets, 29-21.
Kobe played the role of facilitator early, passing up shots in favor of open teammates. But his teammates were unable to seal the deal, missing badly from outside. Turnovers continued to pile up as Denver took advantage of the extra offensive opportunities as they extended their lead to 33-23. Andrew Bynum (6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots in 22 minutes) scored on a put-back off his own miss as Kobe headed to the bench for his first break. Shannon Brown’s (4 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound) baseline dunk and Jordan Farmar’s (5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist) triple kept the Lakers close but Ty Lawson (6 points in 6 minutes) prevented them from gaining any ground. The Nuggets were shooting well over 50% and dominating the World Champions much like they had in their previous two meetings. The Nuggets welcomed the physical play as the Lakers resorted to a “palms-up” position with the referees. The Nuggets were looking for contact, content to go to the free throw line as the Lakers piled up the fouls.
With both Bynum and Gasol taking a seat with 3 fouls apiece, the Lakers looked to their bench to right the ship. First a bucket by seldom used Josh Powell, (6 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist) then another on a dunk after flashing through the lane. Toss in a pair of missed free throws by Kenyon Martin (6 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists) and the Lakers finally seemed to have awakened for their early afternoon contest. Lamar Odom (20 points, 12 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 steals, 1 blocked shot) scored inside then Artest found a wide-open Powell for another jam off an inbounds play, but Denver finished the first half comfortably ahead, 52-43 with a 23-4 advantage at the free throw line.
Bynum started the second half with back-to-back baskets deep in the paint. Artest followed that with a steal and subsequent breakaway bucket to draw the Lakers to within 52-49. The physical war between Ron-Ron and Melo intensified as the two jockeyed for position, and it was often Artest who came out the winner. Melo was visibly upset with the manhandling that Artest was delivering and tried to fight back with his own physical play. Derek Fisher’s (8 points, 2 steals, 1 rebound) three-pointer drew the Lakers to within 54-53 caromed by their 10-2 start. Free throws and a bucket by Melo reestablished Denver’s dominance, then a steal and dunk followed by a three-pointer by Arron Afflalo (16 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 blocked shot) put the Nuggets back on top, 64-53 to match their biggest lead with 5:22 left in the third period. Fisher’s second trey and another steal by Artest finally gave the Staples Center something to cheer about. LO’s free throws cut the lead to 64-58 but Afflalo’s magnificent defensive sequence of a blocked shot, two near blocks and forcing a turnover on a single Lakers possession had the Nuggets bench jumping out of their seats. The Lakers trimmed the lead back down to 68-65 but Martin got open underneath for a 70-65 Nuggets advantage. Anthony, content with his personal battle with Artest, went into one-on-one mode and dribbled into a double team and promptly lost the ball. The Lakers capitalized with a single free throw but forced Melo into coughing up the ball again on the next possession. The third quarter ended with the Nuggets clinging to a 70-67 lead with Kobe a miserable 1-9 from the field.
LO’s triple to open the 4th quarter knotted the score at 70-70. But Melo answered quickly with a difficult deuce of his own. Kobe then found Gasol underneath for an easy score after drawing the double-team. Lamar’s high bank off the glass after crossing through the lane gave the Lakers their first lead since the opening seconds of the game. Gasol’s soft hook pushed the lead to 76-72 and Coach George Karl quickly called time-out. LO’s block on Anthony Carter led to a fast break basket by Farmar and an 82-74 lead. The wheels were about to fall off the Denver wagon as the Nuggets struggled with turnovers and the suddenly surging Lakers. And behind it all was LO, picking up the offense while Kobe played the role of decoy almost too well. Bryant appeared a step slow, and I sensed he was frustrated by the way his body appears to have let him down. He was incapable, (and let us all hope temporarily), of physically taking over the contest like we have seen him do so throughout his career.
But the Nuggets continued to chip away, finally tying up the contest on 3 free throws by Billips. Kobe finally scored inside, but Billips answered with a three-pointer to give the lead back to the Nuggets, 85-84. Kobe found Odom inside but Billips answered with another jumper. Kobe drew the defense to him and delivered a cross-court pass to Artest in the corner for a three-pointer and a 89-87 lead. Melo baited Artest into a foul and drained both charities with 3:38 to go and Staples Center was more nervous than one could remember in recent history. A steal by Kobe led to a pair of free throws and a 91-89 lead. Gasol’s power drive to the basket resulted in an 93-89 lead, then Artest paid back Melo by drawing the offensive foul and the automatic disqualification for his sixth foul. Artest reveled in the moment by punching his fist through the air in exclamation. The Lakers missed their shots late but managed to grab key offensive rebounds to help secure their 45th victory of the season and a momentary reprieve from all of the doubters and haters. With the loss, the Nuggets fall to 39-20 and perhaps have something to think about now that the Lakers have finally awakened from their long, championship slumber.