The Los Angeles Lakers escaped the Denver Nuggets, 92-88, to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
In other news, I can’t breathe and heart rate won’t go down.
The game was that thrilling and, because I’m a picky Lakers fan, the whole “thrill” thing was totally needless.
But we’ll take them as they come. A dubya’s a dubya, even in its ugliest form.
The Lakers were much more competitive for most of the game in comparison to the total slop-fest they put up in the third game of this best-of-7 series, often making us wonder if they’re the only team in NBA history to ever sleepwalk their way through a playoff series.
Of course, this team slept-walk their way through some of this game: They weren’t exchanging leads with the Nuggets because Denver was executing better or defending all that well. If we’re being totally honest, the Lakers figured that having one-and-a-half good quarters wasn’t enough, so they adjusted and played well for about half of a game.
The defense did its work when it needed to be done, though, forcing Denver to struggle offensively late in the game. Aside from a wide-open Ty Lawson three-pointer that would have tied the game with under two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, most crucial possessions saw sharp rotations and ball-hawking defense that proved to be relentless and aggressive, and Denver wound up not being able to buy a bucket when it needed to most. Credit the big men down low, too, for defending the paint as well as they did — and should, from here on out — and forcing Denver to rely on jumpshots, while limiting the Nuggets’ pivots and 4’s, with only one shooting above 40 percent for the game (and it was Timofey Mozgov, and he only went 3-for-5 on the evening). Javale McGee, who was the biggest surprise and catalyst in Denver’s Game 3 win, was effectively rendered useless — although, really, he usually is anyway, so things just went back to normal — while Al Harrington, who came up pretty big down the stretch, still only shot 4-for-11 on the night.
What gave the Lakers so much trouble was the remarkable play of both Andre Miller and Danilo Galinari. Miller dominated the first half and bullied his way to a 7-for-13 shooting night, while Galinari was the most salient Nugget all night long, and finished with 20 points off of 16 shots to go with his six boards. Although, it’s been the story that we haven’t had a consistent answer for Gallo this entire series, since L.A. has thrown Devin Ebanks — not a terrible defender, to be sure, but not a great one either — and Matt Barnes (who’s on a bum ankle) at him, making that the most significant match-up advantage the Nuggets have. Still, Galinari hasn’t completely hurt us, but when Denver has competed, it’s in the normal, Nugget-y way we expect them to: Using their depth to find who has the hot hand for the night and sticking with them for the majority if the contest.
And the Nuggets’ seemingly only consistent player, Ty Lawson, netted just 11 points off of 13 shots, with L.A. once again limiting his effectiveness and not allowing him to penetrate and break down the defense. This, of course, was complimented by the Lakers’ controlling the Nuggets’ frantic pace, which would work in their favor two-fold: 1) Because the Lakers cannot run up and down the court all day with all that size; and 2) Because the home crowd in Denver gets a little too loud for the Lakers’ liking.
L.A. did control the pace — with a few lapses and sleepy transition defense, at some points — and forcing a slow-down, half-court game works perfectly to their favor.
On offense? Well, Andrew Bynum actually decided to give a damn today, and finished off the night with an efficient-as-hell 19 ponts off of 8-for-12 shooting while constantly posting up whatever Denver big had the misfortune of guarding Andrew at that particularly moment in time. Kobe Bryant had a bit of an inefficient night — not something new, really — scoring 22 points off of 25 shots. Of course, you’re expecting me to say that Kobe hit some clutch shots late in the game to redeem himself, but instead, Kobe decided to stray from the course and wound up making all the right plays, drawing attention from Nuggets defenders and forced his teammates to make wide-open shots to put away the Nuggets in the fourth.
Which leads us to our two heroes: Ramon Sessions, who hit a go-ahead three-pointer late in the game to put L.A. up three, and Steve Blake, who was largely inefficient all game long (again, this is expected), but managed to troll the Laker fan-base by knocking down a couple of clutch threes to seal the deal and send us flying back home to Los Angeles with a 3-1 series lead.
It should also be noted, though, that Jordan Hill had himself a hell of a game and has provided us with constant and consistent effort, not just this game, but all series long. Today, the dude hustled his way towards 11 rebounds, seven of them being on offense and several of them being crucial before Mike Brown went back to Bynum to finish the game (which turned out to be a good call, because Andrew Bynum promptly hit a flat hook shot with momentum on the Denver’s side, leading to a very sweet silence at the Pepsi Center).
Of course, this wasn’t L.A.’s perfect game: There were quite a few times where the defense was caught sleeping and Denver took advantage, and not all of these moments were on Denver fast-breaks. Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo had some really solid opportunities late in the game due to some miscommunication on the Laker defense that kept the Nugs hanging around a little longer than we would’ve liked.
But we’re just whining. A playoff win is a playoff win, and this mantra especially applies to today’s game: We don’t expect the Lakers to play half-assed defense all playoffs long, as much as they’d like to.
Denver out-hustled us and that’s what kept them in the contest, but when the Lakers decided to turn it on — a damning phrase at this point, because we’d love to see 48 minutes of solid basketball from L.A. — it was over.
The series heads back to Los Angeles — home of the L.A. Kings who happened to sweep the second-seeded St. Louis Blues and pummel their way to a conference finals berth — where the Lakers man-handled Denver in Games 1 and 2.
Personally, I don’t know what the mentality of Los Angeles is going to be like in this one. I can’t imagine they’d want to play around too much with the Nuggets anymore, and losing at home (on purpose, because it seems like that’s the only time the Lakers actually lose) would be disastrous, since it’d send L.A. up with just a 3-2 series lead and a trip back to Denver, where the Nuggets might steal a game at the raucous Pepsi Center. This, of course, is magnified by the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder — the massive beasts in the West and favorites to win the NBA Finals — are waiting in the wings after easily disposing of the Dallas Mavericks.
But will the prospect of having Metta World Peace back for Game 1 of the semi-finals against OKC be that tempting so as to force the Lakers to lose to a reeling Nuggets squad?
That notion would be pretty damn silly, but with this team, we’re not sure what to believe anymore.
One more game, and we’re coming for you, Loud City.