Lakers 119, Denver 92: Rolling to the Finals
It started in Game 5. The Lakers played intelligent, aggressive basketball for 48 minutes (or very nearly, at least), recognizing what was being offered by the opposition, methodically and repeatedly- not always a given for this bunch- taking advantage. All that while they raised the bar in the second half with some high level D.
Well, what was a very satisfying treat for Lakers fans Wednesday night turned out to be the appetizer. Tonight, in LA's 119-92 smackdown of the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals they, to extend the food metaphor, got a night at the steakhouse- I prefer a bone-in ribeye- complete with all the appropriate sides and a chocolate souffle to finish things off. Everything was clicking, from an active and committed defense that held the Nuggets to 41% shooting through three quarter, to an impressively efficient and patient offense.
You know, that same offense that had hoops analysts (myself included) schoolgirl giddy for the first couple months of the season and has made only periodic appearances during the Playoffs. The one where things flow to the point it's amazing folks don't slip on the floor, the machine is so well oiled.
When the Lakers are as smart as the were tonight with the ball, excluding the 11 first half turnovers of course, they're very difficult to defend. As impressive as the final numbers were- 57% shooting, 28 assists on 42 field goals (at the end of three, it was 23 dimes on 32 makes), a somewhat mind-bending 24-24 mark from the stripe- they don't necessarily illustrate how well the Lakers picked apart the Nuggets. Only a handful of times did the Lakers not get a good look at the basket. The lack of an extra pass was the exception to the rule, as was a possession without some sort of post touch. The rock went in, it went out, it changed sides of the floor.
As a result, the Lakers were able to pound the Nuggets in the paint and, particularly for the non-Kobe members of the crew, produce the sort of wide open perimeter jumpers that remind guys more of pregame shootaround than Game 6 of the WCF.
Perhaps best of all was the consistency of the effort. The Lakers won the first quarter by five, the second by eight, the third by three, the fourth by 11. Denver's only really serious run, which kept the game close for the middle minutes of the second quarter, was met with a championship caliber response. Over the final 7:18 of the first half, the Lakers outscored the Nuggets 21-7, limiting them to a single field goal and turning a one-point deficit into a 13 point lead at the break. In the third, Denver threw at the Lakers what was left in the tank, but LA didn't budge. No TO's in the frame, meaning George Karl's bunch had to earn a comeback.
Didn't happen. Couldn't, really. Because no matter what the Nuggets did, LA continued to pick them apart on the other end, steadfastly refusing to go away from what was working. Admittedly, this was the worst game, especially defensively, the Nuggets played of the six. On some levels, it's a shame they went out like this, though I doubt the purple and gold faithful will shed any tears.
But I don't think it would have mattered. The Lakers were in a zone Denver couldn't match even with a more typical performance.
It's nearly impossible to expect the Lakers to operate at this level of efficiency through the Finals, whether against Orlando or Cleveland. The opponent is less important than simple math- the shots won't always go down, the opposition won't always buckle the way Denver frequently did in front of their own rim. But if the Lakers continue to show the discipline displayed on both sides of the ball over the last eight quarters when the ball tips on June 4, they'll raise their championship odds exponentially.
Will they? I'd like to think so. We'd all like to. Of course, Charlie Brown always wanted to believe Lucy would stop pulling that football away, too. We'll find out in a week or so. It's worth noting, though, that after a very disappointing series against the Rockets the Lakers just finished off a very good Denver team in six games, forced to win physical battles, work through fatigue, find contributions from around the roster, step up defensively, and come through on the road. Games 4 and 6 against Houston seem like a far more distant memory, even if the questions about "which team shows up" still linger (and they will).
More Friday night funness and tips of the hat--
- Kobe Bryant: Had he worn scrubs and gloves and hit the floor with a holster full of scalpels, dude couldn't have been more surgical. 35 points on 12-20 shooting, six boards, 10 dimes, and a block of Carmelo Anthony to end the first half. The Nuggets again seemed determined early to force other players to beat them, sending doubles at Bryant and trying to force the ball from his hands. Kobe obliged, and Denver paid the price. He consistently found the open man, passing up Kobe-makeable shots for even better looks for a teammate somewhere else on the floor. When he did shoot, everything seemed to be in rhythm. He attacked the rack, he used picks, he made JR Smith pay (stop me if you've heard this already) for keeping his hands down on the perimeter. As the game went on, the Nuggets were forced to try and defend him with one guy, and we've seen how that can go. Just as he was in Game 5, Kobe was fantastic as a total floor leader on Friday.
- Pau Gasol: First, it was good to see that face up jumper start to fall again for Pau, but more importantly, we were again treated to an illustration of why it's important he get the ball up and down the post. Because whether he scored (20 points on 8-12 shooting) or passed (six assists), Gasol displayed the patience, vision, and skill that can make him so dangerous. Left hand, right hand, you choose. Even better, he was strong defensively. Three steals, a block, and some very good work on the pick and roll around the perimeter that helped limit Anthony and Chuancey Billups to a combined 8-24. Pau's 12 boards were part of a strong effort on the defensive glass for the Lakers. The second-chance-happy Nuggets only managed seven offensive boards on the night (that's a 17% rate, well below Denver's 27% postseason mark).
- Lamar Odom: Any concerns that Odom would slip back into bad habits after a monumental Game 5 were put to bed. 20 points on 7-12 shooting, eight boards and an assist, plus the same sort of defensive versatility put forth a couple nights back. He wasn't epic, but Odom was a major factor in the proceedings, which is what the Lakers need him to be. Plus, by winning in six, that bad back of his will get much needed extra rest heading into the Finals.
- Small Forwards: Trevor Ariza was nails in the first quarter. Ignored by Denver (again), Ariza made the Nuggets pay (again). He hit open threes when they were offered, or took a more aggressive path to the basket when given the opportunity. What I loved was the judgment he showed. There have been times this season where Ariza would hesitate, sometimes to take the jumper, other times to drive with force. Tonight, he had some swagger, the confidence to do both. When guys like TA are a factor offensively, what do you do as an opposing coach? On the other end, Ariza ran into some foul trouble, but the Lakers got some good minutes from Luke Walton, particularly as he got settled into the game. Walton's first ticks of burn weren't good, but in the third quarter after Ariza picked up his fourth foul two minutes in, Walton made himself a factor, scoring six of his 10 points. He'd finish with three assists, did some decent work defensively, and as is his custom, was diligent in getting the ball to the post. Together, Walton and Ariza combined for 27 points on 12-17 shooting.
Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic hit some important shots. Andrew Bynum, while not a factor offensively, continued to show some signs on the other end (though the lack of rebounding- one in just under 22 minutes- remains a problem). Two second half turnovers, 24 converted free throws. And when the Nuggets began to melt down in the second half, the Lakers ignored it and kept rolling right along. (Except when they literally couldn't, as when while on the floor Kenyon Martin grabbed on to Sasha's leg and wouldn't let go, like a heavily tatted three year old might his dad at a crowded amusement park. Not that Vujacic tussled with Martin- Sahsa is scrappy, not crazy- but it's hard not to notice that sort of thing.) No yapping, no pushing or shoving. They new they were the better team, and carried themselves as such.
In short, they acted like they'd been there before, because they have. Now they just have to go a step beyond.
More to come tomorrow.