Breathe, friends. It’s over. We’ve won.
The Los Angeles Lakers finally eliminated the scrappy, tough Denver Nuggets in the seventh and final game of the series, and it was the most gut-wrenching (and most Lakers) thing we’ve seen since Lakers-Celtics Game 7 in the 2010 NBA Finals.
And, in all honesty, it was the exact opposite way L.A. played in Games 5 and 6.
Kobe Bryant wasn’t stuck with the damn load this time around, and no more lazy-ass excuses for box-out attempts. There wasn’t all that much disengagement — save for a very dangerous stretch late in the 3rd quarter — and the outside shooting was friggin’ gorgeous.
And by “Kobe wasn’t stuck with the damn load,” I mean Kobe played the exact way I didn’t expect Kobe to play. In fact, Kobe took just 16 shots all game, for a total of 17 points, but contributed with eight assists in one of the best displays of ball movement I’ve seen out the Lakers since the Kobe Bryant era began when Shaq left in 2004.
It’d have been a lot more enjoyable if the Denver Nuggets weren’t playing so damn well.
Because, fellow Laker fans, this game was scary. It wasn’t one of those “it was close, but I always felt L.A. would win” kind of games. After pulling away by 15 points in the third, the team crumbled and the game was tied at 68 before the third quarter ended. Poor rotations and overall incredible resiliency by the Nuggets brought Denver within striking distance. The momentum-shifting and narrative-changing charge was led by Ty Lawson, who scored 13 points between the time the Lakers led 64-49 and by the time the Nuggets tied the game up 68-68.
But an adjustment was made — Mike Brown put Kobe Bryant to the task of guarding Lawson, blanking him all of the 4th quarter — and the Lakers were able to slowly inch their way past the Nuggets.
Pau Gasol? The dude got his ass in the game, finally, and his passion today was characterized by his postgame interview with Craig Sager in which Pau — our Pau; professional, respectable Pau — had said he needed to get his “ass in the paint.”
It was that kind of night.
One of the fall guys — whom we all criticized for the Lakers’ lack of effort in Games 5 and 6, and rightfully so — Pau led the Lakers with 23 points and 17 rebounds, ELEVEN! of them coming on the offensive end.
The other fall guy, Andrew Bynum? He was engaged, too, and wound up with 16 points and 18 boards, NINE! of them being on offense.
The real hero, though? The real “fall guy” who has taken the brunt of the criticism, not just this series, but most of the shortened 66-game season? Steve Blake.
Y’know, the Steve Blake we all wished had gotten traded in Derek Fisher’s place? Yeah, that Steve Blake.
Blake saved his team’s butt on multiple occasions with some of the most timely threes we’ve seen from him all season — which is surprising, given that he’s had some really timely threes — and finished the game with 19 points off of 7-for-11 shooting and 5-for-6 from downtown.
Metta World Peace’s presence was pretty friggin’ incredible, too, but we urge you to not look at his line, please (15 points off of 5-for-15 shooting; we told you not to look!), because it wasn’t indicative of the impact he made. The dude was scrapping and fighting and, uh, this:
Yes, that’s Metta World Peace Ron-Artest’ing his way for a loose ball that was pretty much out of bounds.
Jokes aside, World Peace rendered Danilo Galinari — who had burned L.A. all series long, or at least in the games the Purple and Gold lost — nearly completely useless, while saving our bigs’ asses when they had missed a defensive board and swiped the ball out of the would-be-rebounders’ hands.
Kobe Bryant called out his team constantly the past 48 hours, and this dude wasn’t messing around. Shockingly, in a close-out game where expect Kobe to dominate the rock, Mamba called on his teammates to knock open wide-open jumpers and create plays on the interior (the double teams the Nuggets kept throwing his and everyone else’s way helped to lead to some open perimeter shots), and as evidenced by the play of Steve Blake, as well as the interior play of Bynum and Gasol, it friggin’ worked.
Of course, it’s unfair to not talk about the Nuggets. When L.A. had lost Game 5, I was sure that this Nuggets team — missing players or Lakers efforts be damned — was not a second-round-worthy team; that they’d just get bounced out if L.A. managed to slack off enough for Denver to just be sloughed off by the powerhouse that is the Oklahoma City Thunder.
But after this game? After shooting just under 40 percent and nearly beating us in our gym? After stepping on the throttle to make sure the Lakers didn’t sleepwalk their way to the second round? This team’s pretty damn good, and they’re pretty damn deep. Given the youth this squad has, they’re going to be a friggin’ force as soon as injured players — namely Wilson Chandler — make their way back next season.
The series shouldn’t have gone this way for L.A. and it did, because Denver wasn’t going to let the Lakers have any freebies. If the Lake Show was going to go on to the second round, they’d have to bust their ass to get there.
So while we’re elated, Denver, we’re also concerned, because we felt like we should’ve have blown you guys out of the water forever ago; however, after Game 7, I’m not so sure that it was entirely reasonable to expect that.
We salute you, Denver Nuggets.
On to Oklahoma City.