Lakers 105, Nuggets 103: Postgame 1

57488633Kanye West’s “Amazing” theme that’s featured on the NBA’s playoff preview commercials applied directly and with purpose on a crazy Tuesday evening in L.A.

Surely if the Lakers come-from-behind, down-the-stretch win over an impressive Denver Nuggets team serves as a harbinger, we’re in for quite a Western Conference Finals. Down 94-89 with 5:13 on the clock, the West’s best slugged it out in Old Western fashion, the big plays deserving a blow-by-blow breakdown:

4:17 Trevor Ariza nails a three after making 1-of-7 shots to that point – Denver 94, L.A. 92.
2:30 Pau Gasol, struggling defensively all game, swats Nene to set up a Derek Fisher three at the other end – L.A. 97, Denver 96.
2:07 Gasol draws a charge on Anthony.
1:38 Chauncey Billups drains a three after Gasol misses both free throws – Denver 99, L.A. 97.
1:14 Gasol draws a defensive foul and makes both free throws – L.A. 99, Denver 99.
0:57.3 Lamar Odom, after tying up Chris Andersen, wins the jump ball.
0:30.5 Kobe Bryant, who stuck a jumper with 3:12 left, attacked the paint, drew a foul and hit both – L.A. 101, Denver 99.
0:29.1 Ariza jumped the lofted Anthony Carter inbounds pass (Odom all over him) and eventually earned two free throws for Bryant with 10.0 remaining – L.A. 103, Denver 99.
0:06.1 Billups drops another silly triple – L.A. 103, Denver 102.
0:05.8 Bryant hits two more from the stripe, and the Lakers wrap up J.R. Smith instead of allowing a potential game-tying three.
0:03.2 Smith makes one, intentionally misses the second, and Bryant skies for the game-clinching rebound.

Lakers win.

In real time, each play was gut-wrenching and time stopping, with a sold out STAPLES Center crowd living with each positive play (Ariza steals the ball!!!) and dying with every counter (Chauncey … No!!!). That L.A. had a chance to make big plays down the stretch in the first place was a testament to Kobe Bryant, who scored 18 fourth quarter points and took turns guarding whichever Nugget was the hottest between Billups and Anthony in a fantastic performance.

“Once I sensed we didn’t have the energy, I had to take it upon myself to try and lead by example,” he said of his 40-point, 4-assist, 6-rebound, ball-hawking effort. “Just had to gut it out … We were down virtually the whole game, I had to dig deep a little bit to see if we couldn’t pull it out.”

Carmelo Anthony, who was himself spectacular with 39 points on 14-of-20 shooting, needed few words to describe his Olympic teammate and close friend.

“He’s tough,” said ‘Melo, shaking his head. “Everyone knows what Kobe can do … He’s a great player.”

57488682“It’s crazy that you start to get used to it,” added Lamar Odom, who pitched in seven points, eight boards, four assists, two steals and two blocks. “You get used to greatness. (Bryant) was amazing. He wanted the ball … And he was able to make plays over and over again … That’s why he’s the best.”

Bryant’s effort was particularly captivating as earlier that day, Lakers legend Jerry West said LeBron James had surpassed Bryant as the game’s best player, comments to which Bryant responded after the game when asked: “(Being the best player is) not my goal …My mission is to win a championship, and the debate of who is the best player, that’s not something that I concern myself with.”

Well, he was certainly the best player on this night, and he needed to be after the Nuggets raced out of the gates like Rachel Alexandra, opening a 13-point first quarter lead that L.A.’s bench managed to completely erase by halftime. But in the third quarter, with Andrew Bynum in foul trouble, Nene and Co. bullied Pau Gasol in the paint to reclaim a lead that was at most seven points early in the fourth.

But then, with Bryant all over Anthony, it was three players who’d struggled for much of the game – Gasol, Fisher and Ariza – who stepped up to the moment, and the Lakers stole a victory.

“We kind of won that game just on energy and gutting it out, finding a way to get some stops at the end and make some plays at the other … some big ones,” said Phil Jackson. “I think they outplayed us and we won the game.”

Denver coach George Karl, dejected yet proud of his team, was gracious in defeat.

“They’re a great team,” he said after looking down for a full 20 seconds. “They’re great at the end of games. They have the best closer in sports, and we didn’t do enough to win the game.”

They were both right: Denver may have deserved to win (12 missed free throws didn’t help), but L.A. was great when it mattered most.

Either way, both coaches seemed to agree that their teams were in for quite a series that continues in L.A. on Thursday.

Until then, some numbers:

1
Second left on the clock when J.R. Smith appeared to hyper-extend his knee in what’s being called a “right knee sprain.” He’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow, but George Karl said he thinks Smith is “going to be fine.” Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant’s ring finger on his shooting hand popped out of place in the fourth, but he stuck it back in and also said it was “fine.”

2
Important 3-pointers cashed in by Derek Fisher, who’d struggled with his deep shot throughout the first two rounds and in the early goings on Tuesday (0-for-6 from the field). The first was a corner hoist as time expired in the first half to give L.A. a 55-54 lead, and the second from the opposite corner with 2:30 left in the game to give L.A. a 1-point lead: “Big shots,” said Kobe Bryant. “Big shots. He’s the ultimate professional. It’s hard for a guys when they don’t get a lot of touches or called upon to make a lot of plays and all of a sudden get that ball in the corner and knock it down like they’ve been in rhythm all game. That’s very, very tough to do … (but) he’s been doing it his whole career.”

3
Steals for Trevor Ariza to lead the Lakers, the biggest of which was the biggest of the season (obviously): “Chauncey (Billups) came open, Ariza anticipated really well, (Anthony Carter) probably didn’t see him and lobbed it,” said George Karl. “(We were) surprised at how quick (Ariza) was (but) he has a great ability to make plays like that, I just wish (Carter) would have called time out.”

9
Field goal attempts from Pau Gasol, only five more than Andrew Bynum (16 minutes). Denver’s Nene did a great job of being physical with Gasol, often shoving him off his spots, though Gasol still managed 13 points, 14 boards, three assists and two blocks that included the crucial swat of Anthony with 2:30 to play.

11
Consecutive postseason games in which the Lakers have beaten the Nuggets.

12
Missed free throws by the Nuggets in 35 attempts. L.A. made 20-of-24, including 11-of-13 in the fourth quarter.

17
Offensive boards for the Lakers, a major key due to a tough shooting night (39.7 percent through three quarters). Gasol led the way with six of his own, and seven different Lakers grabbed at least one: “They come and they block shots,” said Odom. “Especially (Kenyon) Martin and (Chris) Andersen, and that allows us to come in right behind those guys and what they don’t block, clean it up.”

46
Points in the paint by the Nuggets, inspired in part by the decision making of Chauncey Billups (eight assists) and Carmelo Anthony (four assists), who took advantage of L.A.’s aggressive defense: “I could always see gaps when penetrating, guys slipping to the basket, because they overload the (strong side), and I’m always going to try and make the right play.”