Lakers 103, Denver 94: Game 5 comes alive like Peter Frampton without the 70's hair and talk-box
With 5:12 left in the third quarter in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers found themselves down by seven after a Dahntay Jones putback of Carmelo Anthony's missed finger roll- second chance points for the Nuggets being no stranger to this series- and faced a crossroads in their season. More points for the Nuggets, and LA could very well head back to the Rockies down a game, needing two straight wins to advance to the Finals. Instead, the Lakers, who have been on the defensive for much of the series, got defensive. Over the final 4:20 of the quarter, LA blocked two shots, forced four turnovers, held the Nuggets to five points, and tied the game at 76. Rather than relax, they carried the momentum into the fourth, ripping off 11 points before the Nuggets responded with even a point. By then, the purple and gold had established control, and the game was theirs.
Final score, 103-94, giving the Lakers a 3-2 lead heading to Friday's Game 6 at Pepsi Center. Unlike other games in this series, LA won this with defense and a patient, well executed, and utterly balanced offensive effort. They looked much less like the team needing the Kobe Bryant, Superman Edition to bail them out, much more like the group that shredded opposing defenses in a variety of ways with a variety of dudes over the course of the season.
It's hard to overstate the importance of tonight's game. Huge. Massive. Gigantic. If it was a fossil in the Natural History Museum, they'd call it Ginormasaurus and children would visit it on school field trips. And with their backs against the wall, a team that some declared is without substantial fortitude, whether intestinal or... slightly lower down the body, shut the door on an explosive Denver team and kept control of the series.
The breakdown- a very happy, breakdown filled with purple and gold hardwood treats- is below. Do you feel like we do? I bet so, Lakers fan. Oh, I bet so.
There was too much good stuff to limit "The Good" to a mere three. Thus, bullets:
- Lamar Odom: "I don't care what he says," Luke Walton told the media after the game, "his back his been killing him. Tonight, though, LO overcame the pain and was a monster contributor for the Lakers. 7-15 from the floor, 14 boards, three dimes, four blocks. It wasn't perfect, but it was how Odom responded to mistakes that made his performance particularly impressive. Whenever he made a mistake (which tended to be a missed shot down low), Odom came back with a play on the other end. He, along with Shannon Brown, formed the foundation of LA's critical defensive stand. In the fourth, Odom was all over the floor, scoring eight points, grabbing six boards and blocking a shot. In his postgame press conference, LO was asked if he actually felt better tonight, or just managed to look like he did. The response was vintage Odom:
- Pau Gasol: He didn't necessarily get the number of shots he was calling for after LA's loss in Game 4, but Pau had plenty of touches, and LA's offense was better for it. Gasol was a focal point of the offense in the high post, and created great looks for his teammates, whether via sweet no look passes to Andrew Bynum, or a particularly effective two-man game with Trevor Ariza. More than that, Gasol was stout defensively like his beloved FC Barcelona, shutting down the lane (five blocks) like those dudes shut down Manchester United (Note: I didn't watch the game and don't follow the game, so it's fair to say the soccer comparisons stop here.) Early in the game, Pau ceded many of LA's available post touches to an active Bynum, but was a force late, scoring eight of his 14 over the final quarter. Final line: 14/10/4, plus two steals and the aforementioned quintet of blocks. It was his eighth straight double-double.
- Kobe Bryant: So much focus is placed on "What Kobe will show up?" on any given night, as if the only way Bryant can make an imprint on a game is by piling up 48 points and YouTube clips. Tonight, he played nearly 45 minutes and only took 13 shots, but lest you think he was somehow uninvolved piled up eight assists as the Nuggets brought frequent double teams for which Kobe frequently made them pay via the pass (my favorite coming with 4:46 left in the third, when with his back turned to the court and pinned to the sideline by two Denver players, he whipped a perfect backhand pass to Shannon Brown under the bucket for an easy layup. That ain't easy.) More importantly, on a night where Denver was daring him to hoist the team on his back, Kobe didn't oblige, and instead allowed LA's offense to flow. Don't get me wrong- Kobe's 22 points still mattered as did his nine freebies in ten attempts (to the point you can look past the seven turnovers) but importantly he didn't force a square peg into a round hole on Wednesday, and the results were fantastic.
- Guard Play: Derek Fisher had his strongest overall game of the series, helping support LA's offense early (10 first half points) and, as was noted at the break by my friend Eric Neel of ESPN.com, found a little bit of the swagger he had lost in the first four games. The second half was dominated by Brown, who played 14 very effective minutes over the final two quarters. Six points on 3-5 from the floor, all while bringing his customary energy and defensive pressure. Brown was a big part of that push late in the third, and until he was removed with four to play, helped continue to gum up Denver's attack. Jordan Farmar's one bucket came on a nice putback off an offensive board in the first quarter, and even Sasha Vujacic chipped in with a huge triple to end the first half. and tie the game at 56. (Wisely, rather than doubling down on a positive contribution from Sasha, Phil sent him to the cashier and collected his winnings. Vujacic didn't play in the second half.) It's amazing how much of a difference it makes for the Lakers when they get production from non-Kobe members of the backcourt.
- Balance: Five players in double figures, with Bynum (himself active offensively in his near-19 minutes of burn) a point away from becoming the sixth. Bynum, by the way, seemed to build on his positive performance from Game 4, and while he did find himself in foul trouble during the second half (and sitting behind the very effective Gasol and Odom), he was a factor, which is what the Lakers need. Walton gave LA decent minutes against Anthony, and more importantly took some ball-handling responsibilities in the fourth while Brown was on the floor, freeing SB to work in the open floor and away from the rock. As a team, LA piled up 25 dimes on 37 field goals. It was a nice change of pace for the Lakers, who have found their offense becoming increasingly stagnant. No surprise, either, that a lack of predictability helped push Denver into foul trouble, as did LA's dominance of the paint, where they outscored the Nuggets 54-36. The Lakers made a point of pushing the ball down low and keying movement out of the low, mid, and high post, with great results.
- Defense: I mentioned the big push at the end of the third into the fourth, but it's worth mentioning that Anthony finished 9-23 from the floor, Chauncey Billups only had 12 points and six free throws, and JR Smith was 3-13. Those are positive developments. In the second half, LA held Denver to 29.3% shooting, and over the course of the game were much smarter in their coverages and rotations.
That Which Still Needs Improving:
- Cleaning the Defensive Glass: While LA managed to slow the flow of offensive boards given away to the Nuggets as the game went along, there were still far too many second chance opportunities for Denver. Particularly in the first quarter, when the Nuggets snagged six of their misses. They'd finish with 14, not all that disastrous, especially given how many shots Denver missed over the final 24 minutes. But Friday night, in front of their home crowd, the Lakers can't expect to dodge some of the bullets they did tonight.
Q. In the must‑win games, whether it's the Rocket series or tonight, the Lakers have responded. Can you talk about the team, what does that say about them and the way they are mentally.
COACH JACKSON: It's playoff basketball and the energy that's created by the home crowd, by the intensity of the game, all that plays into it. And this Lakers group is really connected. They're a connected group. They're driven and they're motivated to get to where we were at last year to give us a chance to win.
We're learners. We've got some young guys out there that are still making mistakes and we're trying to work through it. That's the best thing tonight, even though we made mistakes defensively and offensively you're going to have that. They continued to work at it. It was no big deal...
Q. Just in general could you talk about that defensive stretch where you had I think 11 straight stops at the end of the quarter?
COACH JACKSON: Some of those stops I was amazed at, because I thought that we left ‑‑ we're hustling really hard, we left guys open for shots we were still able to recover to get back to guys who were taking shots.
We had blocks at the baskets. We had rebounds and I thought they were up for grabs and we came down with and that was a period of time where we were able to create some things. The stretch was finally broken by Kleiza hitting a three, but that was a great stretch for us.
Q. Kobe's done so much for you guys scoring in this series, was it part of the game plan tonight for him to play more of a facilitator role?
COACH JACKSON: That's what we really asked of him. He had eight assists, probably could have had
more if we hit some shots. But he was creating
the offensive opportunities by generating and double teaming the screen roll
Q. Coach, Gasol was talking before, I guess yesterday he was talking about getting more touches and getting the ball more. In the beginning of the game, I didn't even see him touch it maybe the first five minutes. Was that by design? The team seemed to be going to Andrew quite a bit.
COACH JACKSON: Well, we did.
Andrew's got that center position.
And it's easy for him to get the ball in there, because we were using
Q. How proud of you are of Shannon Brown coming in, the aggressive plays going at Birdman who has been there, aggressive in the series?
COACH JACKSON: I put him in the ball game and said, You gotta make things happen for us because we were down 5, 6, whatever it was at that point in the game. And both Fisher and Drew got four fouls and had to come out of the ball game. He sparked our team, gave us a real big lift..
Q. About Shannon, what does that say to you about the way he was able to be so ready after not playing in the first half?
COACH JACKSON: He's got a great attitude as a player. He supports his teammates. He looks for his opportunities. Tries to make the best out of them. And with that quarter break, you know,
Billups having foul situation, I thought they may substitute Carter in for
him. I said, If Carter goes in, Jordan
They kind of waited us and kept
Billups out on the floor. And we had Shannon
Kobe Bryant, on the low post play and how to avoid a Game 6 letdown
Kobe Bryant, on the team's readiness and the second half defense
Kobe Bryant, on the media's analysis of the Lakers
(AK's note: As those who actually read what I write know, I think much of the media coverage has too often been presented within a prism of "If the Lakers don't roll through the playoffs, something is wrong," as opposed to acknowledging that the Nuggets are a legit team. Thus, I asked Kobe whether he thinks people still have a difficult time wrapping their heads around that notion. His "It's just talk for the sake of creating discussion" viewpoint is interesting, and I'd like to think he's right. And maybe he is in certain cases. But honestly, I do think he's giving some talking heads and writers too much credit. From where I'm sitting, this doesn't often feel like false bluster for the sake of driving discussion. At the very least, some of these people should consider moonlighting in Hollywood, because they play this role rather convincingly.)