Nuggets Erase 14 Point First Half Deficit, Earn Split in Los AngelesThe L.A. Lakers do not always play hard (or smart), so consequently they end up having to do things the hard way--and if the Lakers are going to attain their goal of winning the 2009 NBA Championship then they are going to have to win at least one game in Denver, because the Nuggets snatched away homecourt advantage in the Western Conference Finals with a 106-103 victory on Thursday night. The Lakers led by eight at the end of the first quarter and pushed that margin to 41-27 in the second quarter but in the final 3:45 of the first half the Nuggets slashed a 51-38 deficit to 55-54, foreshadowing how they would later take command in the waning moments of the second half as well. Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 34 points, though he shot just 12-29 from the field. Anthony also had four assists and tied Nene for team-high honors with nine rebounds. Chauncey Billups shot 6-15 from the field but he lived on the free throw line (13-16) and accumulated 27 points; more impressively, he dished for four assists while committing just one turnover in 44 minutes. Kenyon Martin scored 16 points on 7-10 field goal shooting; as ESPN's Mark Jackson noted, the Lakers can accept him shooting jumpers even if they occasionally go in but Martin had way too many dunks and layups. Linas Kleiza contributed 16 points and eight rebounds off of the bench, adding his name to the list of reserve forwards who have killed the Lakers in the playoffs in the past couple years, joining the likes of Leon Powe and Carl Landry; this is not meant to suggest that those guys are not quality NBA players but how long can the notion that the Lakers are the deepest and/or most talented team in the NBA survive in the wake of the parade of non-starters who torch them in postseason games?
Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 32 points on 10-20 field goal shooting in 40 minutes, adding five rebounds and three assists. Trevor Ariza played very actively, scoring 20 points on 6-7 shooting and getting four steals. Pau Gasol put up 17 points and 17 rebounds but he has been the least effective/dominant of the four All-NBA players participating in this series (Anthony, Billups and Bryant are the others). Lamar Odom (10 points, nine rebounds) was the only other Laker to reach double figures in scoring; he is playing starter's minutes (30 in this game) because Andrew Bynum is nothing but a figurehead starter, scoring nine points in 18 minutes in this contest after posting six points in 16 minutes in game one. Shannon Brown (eight points on 3-8 shooting in 17 minutes) played decently but no other Laker reserve made any contributions worthy of note. Sasha Vujacic is burying himself deeper and deeper in Coach Phil Jackson's doghouse, going 0-4 from the field before earning the quick hook after just six minutes. The Lakers' only advantages in this series so far are Kobe Bryant versus whoever tries to guard him, Pau Gasol's offensive rebounding and homecourt advantage--and homecourt advantage just went out the window, Gasol cannot haul in enough offensive boards to make up for his defensive lapses and neither Bryant nor anyone else can single-handedly win a series at this stage of the NBA playoffs.
Trevor Ariza has played with commendable energy but by his own admission Anthony is torching him. The Lakers desperately need for Gasol and Bynum to play with more energy and force. After one first quarter sequence in which both of those players lingered at the offensive end of the court while the Nuggets pushed the ball up the court and then played patty cake on the offensive glass, Van Gundy called their effort--or lack thereof--"inexcusable." Starting point guard Derek Fisher has permanently carved a place for himself in Lakers history thanks to his clutch play over the years but it looks like his tank is stuck on empty--he scored three points on 1-9 shooting and he is not the defensive bulldog that he used to be.
I have dubbed Bryant "The Firefighter" because the Lakers constantly need for him to put out raging infernos at both ends of the court; in game one he dropped 40 points while doing yeoman's defensive work against Billups, Anthony and Sixth Man of the Year candidate J.R. Smith. The Lakers similarly shifted him around on defense in game two and he once again played well at that end of the court but the problem for the Lakers is that whoever he is not checking often gets loose; one other problem is that even though Bryant can play good man to man defense versus Anthony on the wing or on the post, whenever Anthony catches Bryant in the paint in an offensive rebound situation he is simply too strong for Bryant. Bryant has said that Anthony is even stronger than LeBron James and while I am not sure whether or not that is true in a weight room sense it definitely appears to be the case in terms of "basketball strength," because I have seen Bryant outbattle James for rebounds or position in the paint in a way that he just cannot seem to do with Anthony.
It is well known that once a good offensive player gets going it is hard to contain him even if you put a good defender on him, so the Lakers might want to consider simply putting Bryant on one player to hold him down as opposed to moving Bryant around so much--and I think that "one player" should be Billups. Bryant guarded Billups for most of the first quarter, outscoring him 14-3 as the Lakers built a 31-23 lead. Ariza did a solid job in the first quarter versus Anthony, who scored just two points on 1-6 shooting. The Lakers seemed to be in command until the Nuggets hit them with 12 points in the final 2:25 of the first half. As Bryant told Doris Burke during his halftime interview, the Lakers lost their defensive intensity and had too many breakdowns; one of those breakdowns happened on the final play, when Billups inbounded the ball off of Bryant's back, caught the ball and laid it into the basket. Obviously, Bryant had his back turned to Billups in order to be able to double-team anyone who popped loose from a screen but it would seem like there should have been at least one big man under the hoop to contend with Billups. If you read Tom Friend's excellent article about Billups then you know that this is not the first time that Billups has pulled off this inbounding tactic.
It is not easy to build a double digit lead against a quality playoff team and when you squander an advantage like that so quickly it dissipates your own energy while pumping up the opposing team's energy. Although the Lakers briefly built a seven point lead in the third quarter they never could recapture the crisp, sharp way that they played to open the game. The Lakers led 81-80 at the end of the third quarter and after Bryant committed his fourth foul at the 11:29 mark of the fourth quarter Coach Phil Jackson took him out of the game but Jackson had to rush him back into the fray less than two minutes later because the Nuggets took an 89-84 lead. Anthony's jumper made the score 91-84 but then Bryant and Brown drained back to back three pointers to wipe out most of that lead. Missed free throws really hurt the Lakers in the latter stages of the game; after Odom sank a pair of free throws to put the Lakers up 92-91, Brown could only split a pair, Gasol sank two but then missed two in a row and Ariza also split a pair; missed free throws are essentially like turnovers and can be just as costly in a close game.
Bryant's three pointer tied the score at 99 and then Bryant answered two Billups free throws by burying a jumper at the :45.3 mark. After a wild scramble for the ball, Nene gained possession and fed Martin for a layup, which ultimately proved to be the game-winning basket. The Lakers ran a Bryant-Gasol screen/roll play but Nene poked the ball away from Bryant and then Gasol and Billups tried to recover the ball. The referees called a jump ball, which the taller Gasol controlled--but Ariza fumbled the ball away. During that sequence, the referees missed an obvious violation committed by Smith, who broke the plane of the jump circle before either jumper touched the ball; by rule, the Lakers should have received the ball on the side, trailing by just two points with :18.6 remaining.
Instead, after Billups made a pair of free throws and Gasol did likewise Billups cracked the door open for the Lakers by missing a free throw, giving the Lakers the chance to tie the game with a three pointer. Oddly, Bryant--who is widely considered the NBA's top closer--was relegated to decoy duty in favor of Fisher, who ended up shooting an air ball as time expired. Coach Jackson later explained that he assumed that the Nuggets would simply foul Bryant on the catch--forcing Bryant to make the first free throw and miss the second one--so he thought that Fisher would get a cleaner look at a three point shot. You may recall that in a similar situation in game two of the 2004 NBA Finals Bryant made a three pointer despite the Pistons' best efforts to foul him and the Lakers eventually won in overtime.
Although homecourt advantage is important, the Nuggets have been in similar situations before and failed to deliver: in both 2005 and 2007 the Nuggets split the first two games in San Antonio only to lose the next three games. Also, in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the Detroit Pistons won game two in Boston and still lost the series in six games. Similarly, in the 2006 Western Conference Finals the Phoenix Suns took game one in Dallas but lost the series in six games. The Nuggets are a good home team but the Lakers are a good road team that is certainly capable of winning one or both games in Denver.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 AM