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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bryant Scores 41 as Lakers Take 2-1 Lead Over Nuggets

This is a great time to be a basketball fan, because The Best the Game Offers are both performing splendidly on the sport's biggest stage, the playoffs: LeBron James is averaging 42 ppg in the Eastern Conference Finals and just hit the biggest shot of his career to tie Cleveland's series with Orlando at 1-1, while Kobe Bryant is averaging 37.7 ppg in the Western Conference Finals and just scored 41 points as the L.A. Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 103-97 to take a 2-1 series lead. Bryant shot 12-24 from the field and 15-17 from the free throw line and also contributed six rebounds, five assists and two steals. He had just one turnover in 41 minutes and scored 13 of his points in the fourth quarter, with 12 of those points coming in the final 6:46, starting with a turnaround jump shot that broke an 81-81 tie and including a big three pointer at the 1:09 mark to put the Lakers up 96-95. Bryant set a Lakers franchise record for most points in the first three games of a Conference Finals series (113), breaking his own mark of 109 set in 2001 versus the San Antonio Spurs (James Worthy's 96 points versus Seattle in 1987 and Kareem Abdul Jabbar's 91 points against Portland in 1977 round out the top four).

As Magic Johnson said right after the game ended, "Finally, Kobe got some help": Pau Gasol had 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Trevor Ariza added 16 points, five rebounds and yet another huge steal on a late-game inbounds play; much like he did in a similar situation in game one, Ariza shot the gap, this time picking off Kenyon Martin's looping toss toward Carmelo Anthony with the Lakers clinging to a 97-95 lead at the :36.5 mark. Anthony fouled Ariza--Anthony's sixth foul of the game--and Ariza made both free throws. Billups answered with two free throws but Bryant closed out the scoring by making four straight free throws in the final 22 seconds.

Denver's big guns all shot blanks from the field: Anthony scored 21 points on 4-13 field goal shooting, Billups had 18 points on 5-15 field goal shooting and J.R. Smith put up a Ron Artest-like line of 15 points on 4-15 field goal shooting, including 2-10 from three point range; the Nuggets shot just 5-27 (.185) on three pointers, with Billups (2-7) and Anthony (1-7) also shooting poorly from long distance. Chris Andersen provided a huge lift off of the bench with 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.

Despite all of the brick laying by their key offensive players, the Nuggets got off to a good start--building a 25-17 lead less than 10 minutes into the first quarter--and were ahead for most of the game. Anthony scored 14 first quarter points--seven of them coming on free throws--but he did not make a field goal in the second half. I respect the way that Anthony has raised his game in this year's playoffs but before anyone rushes to put him in the elite category with Bryant and James he must sustain that high level of play for an extended period of time.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of this series plays out. The Nuggets only won four more regular season games this season than they did last season but they moved up from the eighth seed to the second seed as injuries brought down teams like the Spurs, Hornets, Jazz, Suns and Mavericks; that enabled the Nuggets to earn homecourt advantage and have the opportunity to avoid playing the Lakers until the Conference Finals after being swept by the Lakers in the first round last year. It is evident that the Lakers are not as deep this year as they were last year--bench players Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton have all been noticeably less productive. Perhaps the Nuggets will win game four and extend this series to at least six games but if the Lakers take that contest and close out the series by winning game five at home then it would be reasonable to ask how much the Nuggets have in fact really improved (as opposed to moving up in the standings due to the aforementioned misfortunes suffered by other West contenders). The Nuggets are supposedly a smarter, more composed team this season but we have seen them lose their composure and make bad plays down the stretch in two of the three games in this series; to the extent that the Nuggets have improved this season I think that the real difference is that their bigs (specifically Nene and Kenyon Martin) are healthier and those guys--plus free agent acquisition Andersen--have played excellent defense in the paint. The Nuggets' bigs have done a good job in this series versus the Lakers' taller frontcourt but, just like last year, the Nuggets still have no answer for Bryant, who is shooting nearly .500 from the field and attempting more than 13 free throws per game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:39 AM

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