Lakers 96, Nuggets 98: Running Diary

60109125Lakers – Nuggets Gameday Page
We took a look at the Lakers – Nuggets contest in Denver while it was happening, entering a thought or three each quarter as the Lakers looked to even the season series with the Nuggets and lock up home court advantage throughout the Western Conference Playoffs.

Inactives
Lakers: Andrew Bynum (Achilles)
Nuggets: Kenyon Martin

Starters
Lakers: Fisher, Vujacic*, Artest, Odom and Gasol
Nuggets: Chauncey Billups, Arron Afflalo, Carmelo Anthony, Nene, Johan Petro
*We learned just before tip off that Kobe Bryant would be a late scratch, with Sasha Vujacic getting the start. Kobe was sitting out due in part to “right knee swelling,” as would officially be listed.

Lakers – Nuggets Preview
The Lakers come into the Thursday evening contest with three days of rest, while Denver had to play in Oklahoma City the night before, a game featuring a big time fourth quarter comeback that vaulted the Nuggets back into second place in the West. We jotted down some of the more interesting notes heading into the game, and also previewed the game via podcast with the Denver Post’s Benjamin Hochman.

60109162First Quarter
12:00 “Starting at guard from Slovenia, number 18, Sasha Vujacic.” The announcement from Denver’s PA guy was certainly shocking to the assembled crowd at Pepsi Center, almost immediately removing any bragging rights from the contest.

4:40 L.A. performed admirably on defense in particular through the game’s first seven minutes, holding the Nuggets to 3-of-10 shooting before Carmelo Anthony nailed a wing 3-pointer to put Denver up 12-10. Last time these teams met, Ron Artest had a fantastic defensive game against ‘Melo, holding him to 7-of-19 shooting with eight turnovers.

1:56 I’ve mentioned a few times in the last two games how Artest struggled considerably from 3-point distance in March, shooting only 27 percent. However, he nailed his first attempt from the wing, and moments later Gasol tipped in a miss and Shannon Brown made two free throws to bring L.A. within two at 22-20 at quarter’s end.

Second Quarter
9:37 Two more free throws from Brown followed Artest’s jumper (10 points) to give L.A. a 27-23 lead, capping a 15-3 for the visitors. The Nuggs, however, scored four points in four seconds when J.R. Smith laid in from the lane and Ty Lawson stole the inbounds pass and laid in himself. Nonetheless, a solid start from the Kobe- and Bynum-less Lakers.

5:59 The first solid momentum swing in Denver’s favor featured J.R. Smith, among the NBA’s best offensive weapons in general (not just off the bench), who went off for five straight points. First he flew into the lane for a finger roll, then he sank a corner three to put Denver up 38-33. Smith went on to nail three more triples in the next three minutes to get to 18 points in the half, pushing Denver’s lead to 52-41. The last three actually pushed Smith past Michael Adams for the franchise record for career 3-pointers made (631).

60109197Third Quarter
5:20 After Denver scored the quarter’s first five points, it was all Purple and Gold, as Brown, Fisher, Gasol and Odom all scored before Artest’s third 3-pointer of the ball game. That pushed Artest’s team-high total to 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. The effects of Denver playing the night before seemed to be increasingly showing.

3:16 L.A.’s terrific quarter continued in emphatic fashion, with Brown’s patented one-handed hammer dunk from the wing capping a 20-5 run that tied the game at 67. Moments later, Nene’s two missed free throws and two ensuing makes from Gasol gave L.A. its first lead since early in the second quarter.

0:35.6 Anthony, who’d missed his first four shots of the quarter, finally hit a deep jumper, but the Lakers had still outscored Denver 27-11 after the 5-0 start for the Nuggs to turn a 10-point halftime deficit into a 74-73 lead. Artest had nearly matched Anthony’s 22 points with 20 of his own on five fewer shots, thanks in part to 3-of-3 shooting from three.

Fourth Quarter
9:19 The unit of Fisher, Brown, Artest, Odom and Gasol was so good in the third that Jackson didn’t even use his bench. But in the fourth, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic both nailed perimeter J’s, Vujacic’s a triple to answer J.R. Smith’s fifth, to push L.A.’s lead to a game-high five at 81-76.

6:24 We’ve been negligent to not mention Gasol’s name more often, since the Spaniard continued an excellent performance with seven quick points to reach 26 on the night, not to mention 13 rebounds and five assists and two blocks already. His 11-foot jumper made it 89-82 L.A., though Billups answered with his second three of the game to cut the margin to four heading into the final six minutes. Question was, how much would L.A. miss Kobe in crunch time?

2:41 With Artest standing helplessly at halfcourt hoping to check back into the game, Anthony reeled off seven straight points for the Nuggets (L.A. getting just a three from Farmar), including two drives to the rim and an open three in transition that tied the game at 92. Fisher’s two free throws were countered with a Smith floater from the baseline, before the Lakers turned the ball over due to a shot clock violation (having Kobe certainly could have helped there).

0:32.4 Here’s some play-by-play for ya as Denver simply made more plays down the stretch: two Fisher free throws countered ‘Melo’s free throws after Nene’s 1-of-2, putting L.A. down one with the Nuggets retaining possession. Brown then made a great defensive play to swat Smith’s baseline jumper, but almost immediately turned the ball over trying to outlet the ball to Fisher too quickly with 14 seconds left. As a result, L.A. had to foul Smith, who helped out by missing the first of two free throws, but Anthony blocked Fisher’s potential game-winning three to preserve a 98-96 win for the Nuggets.

That one stings a bit for the visitors, who rallied without Bryant and Bynum from 15 points down to take a 6-point lead before giving way to Denver down the stretch. The loss drops L.A. into a tie with Orlando for the league’s second-best record, though the Lakers do hold the tiebreak with the Magic in a potential Finals rematch since they have a better record against the other conference. The Lakers are scheduled to land in Minneapolis around 3:30 a.m. local time heading into Friday night’s back-to-back. Until then, your numbers:

POSTGAME NUMBERS
3 Triples nailed by Ron Artest in as many attempts, a pleasant sign for the Lakers since Artest had been struggling from distance (27 percent in March). Artest finished a solid offensive night with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, plus six boards, three assists and two steals.

9 Turnovers for L.A., helping the Lakers hang tough in the game, though a shot clock violation with 1:32 to play and the game tied at 94 was a killer.

9 Free throws missed by Denver, including two big late ones from J.R. Smith and Nene, respectively, that nearly came back to bite the Nuggets.

13 Rebounds for both Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, helping L.A. control the glass 52-39. In fact, 17 offensive rebounds helped lead to 26 second-chance points for the Lakers.

16 Assists for the Lakers, to 23 for Denver.