What were the chances of another up-and-down, cut-throat, skill-infested Western shootout between the Lakers and Nuggets after a Game 1 slugfest?
Decent, but not likely, right?
“Not quite the same game but almost,” said Phil Jackson. “Different ending.”
The crunch time plays went to Denver, the biggest of which was a Trevor Ariza turnover after a jump ball, a play with plenty of intrigue in itself. After Kenyon Martin hit a baseline leaner with 29.6 seconds left to put his team up two, countering Kobe Bryant’s second-straight jumper, Nene tied up Pau Gasol at the top of the key. On the jump, J.R. Smith appeared to illegally enter the play, but Trevor Ariza gained temporary control only to fumble it away while trying to avoid a traveling call. There was contact on the play from Carmelo Anthony, whom Phil Jackson thought got away with a push, but no whistle could be heard.
Regardless of what really happened, the Nuggets gained control, and Billups ended up at the free throw line for the 15th and 16th time. He missed the first, however, allowing the Lakers a final 3-point attempt that would have tied the game … But it fell short as Nene got a touch on the ball out of the corner, and Denver – who had proven itself to be a very, very good team – earned an away split to capture home court advantage from the Lakers just as Houston had in Round 2.
Sure, execution down the stretch was what won the game, but you have to go back to the second quarter to get the whole story, to see how the tempo changed. L.A. had completely dominated the paint to build a 14-point lead with 7:18 to go in the half, getting easy layups and dunks for Andrew Bynum in particular, before Denver’s bench rolled off a big 12-0 run keyed by two Linas Kleiza threes to close the half down just one.
“I thought it invigorated them, got them going,” said Jackson. “It gave them some confidence in what they wanted to run, and defensively I thought they were better too.”
Then in the third quarter, Bynum – who was a team-high +7 in 18:27 – played just under five minutes and didn’t appear in the fourth, forcing Pau Gasol to play the entire second half as the Spaniard tired noticeably. That seemed to sway L.A.’s control of the paint, and with it, their control of the game. Indeed, the Lakers outscored Denver 36-18 in the paint during the first half with Bynum patrolling the lane, but ceded a 20-16 advantage in the second, with two Anthony offensive boards looming large.
“Their presence of scoring paint points is as good as anyone in the league,” said George Karl. “They do it with post ups in size and rebounding.”
Just not in the second half, when they needed two extremely tough pull-up threes from Bryant to stay in the battle after falling down by seven early in the fourth.
In a game that saw a total of 56 whistles blown, Billups made 13-of-16 free throws en route to 27 points, while Anthony scored 34 points on 12-of-29 shooting. Bryant ended up with 32 points on 10-of-20 shooting, while Trevor Ariza put in 20 points on 6-of-7 and was a big factor in a 7-0 third quarter run that re-claimed the lead momentarily for L.A.
A tough loss, no question, but there was no panic in the Lakers’ locker room. After all, L.A. had the league’s best road record in the regular season (29-12), including wins in Cleveland, Boston, San Antonio and … yes … Denver.
“We’re not the best road team in the NBA for no reason,” said Bryant, who led his team to road victories in Round 1 over Utah and Round 2 over Houston.
Just 48 hours and they’ll have their chance for redemption in what’s shaping up to be quite a Western Conference Finals.
Until then, some numbers:
Three-pointers made by substitute Linas Kleiza, who barely played in Game 1, en route to 16 points and eight boards off the bench.
Shots missed in nine attempts by Derek Fisher, after two clutch threes in Game 1 from the veteran.
Offensive rebounds for Denver, one more than L.A., a big difference from Game 1.
Straight free throws made heading into the final seconds by Denver until Chauncey Billups missed the front end with 4.3 seconds left in the game. That allowed L.A. a chance for a final game-tying attempt, but it didn’t matter when Fisher missed the shot.
Years that had passed since Denver last beat the Lakers in the postseason (1985).
Combined free throws attempted by Billups and Anthony, of which they made 23.
Minutes played by Pau Gasol, who tired noticeably down the stretch but still managed 17 boards and 17 points.