Lakers win Game 3: Thin air, meaty effort
First things first: Kobe Bryant is really, really, really good at basketball. Like, seriously outstanding at it. This is not news, of course, but bears repeating after his 41 point performance Saturday night in Denver, as the Lakers beat the Nuggets 103-97 in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, taking a 2-1 advantage in the series and regaining home court advantage.
The final line- 12-24 from the floor, 2-5 from downtown, 15-17 from the stripe, six boards, five dimes, two steals- was impressive, but this wasn't one of those silky smooth performances where he cuts through the opposition like the proverbial hot knife through butter. No. Dude earned this one, using every ounce of energy in the tank in his 41:13 of playing time. As he delivered his postgame interview with ESPN's Doris Burke, Kobe was leaning over hard, and not just because she's shorter than him. It looked like he lacked the energy and oxygen to get the words out.
"I couldn't feel my legs. Not at all," Kobe said of his late-game fatigue. "But you gotta do what you gotta do."
Indeed. At times, "what you gotta do" was driving the lane. Other times, posting up or working the baseline, and biggest of all (insofar as iconic highlights go), canning a ludicrously clutch triple over the momentarily not-stretched out arms of JR Smith on the left wing, putting the Lakers up by one with 1:09 to play. My favorite moment, though, came late, when he was sent to the line with 22 seconds to go and the Lakers up by two, with a chance to put a hammer lock on the game. Stepping to the line, clearly exhausted, he gathered himself, taking just a few more moments than normal to quiet his tired body and focus the last of his energy on two final shots. The "easiest" ones in basketball, so they say.
Cord. Cord. Lakers by four. For all the spectacular play he delivered in the first 47:38, it was there where we saw just how much effort it takes to be Kobe Bryant.
He wasn't alone, though.
- Pau Gasol still didn't get enough shots for my liking (12- a few more would do LA some good), but played a strong game on both sides of the floor. 20 points, eight coming in the fourth, and four of those coming on two shots over Nene during a stretch where Kobe said after the game he was totally gassed, and needed help. Pau provided it. Gasol also had 11 boards, good for his sixth straight double-double of the postseason and tenth in twelve games. Defensively, he was much more aggressive on Denver's screen and rolls, helping limit Chauncey Billups to a 5-15 shooting night, and cutting down Mr. Big Shot's FT count to seven from 16 on Thursday night. He was also strong around the rim contesting shots. Pau will never make people forget an in-prime Ben Wallace, but he's capable of playing good defense, and did so tonight.
- Trevor Ariza, 6-7 in Game 2, was 5-8 from the floor, including three giant triples. More than that, he recovered from a mid-game injury to play huge minutes down the stretch. Ariza bodied up Carmelo Anthony more aggressively, helping limit Denver's star to seven points after a 14 point first quarter. And, of course, there was The Steal 2.0. With 36.5 seconds to go and the Nuggets down by two, Ariza stepped in front of a loopy (to say the least) pass from Kenyon Martin to Anthony, tipped it away, and headed towards Denver's bucket. Melo fouled him, resulting in two free throws for the Ariza, a four point lead for the Lakers, and the end of the road for Anthony, who picked up his sixth personal in the exchange.
- Laker D. LA held Denver to 39% in the game and 18 points in the fourth. They blocked seven shots, and generally did the whole stiff upper lip routine. Rotations got much better as the game went along, players fought through picks. Yeah, there were breakdowns- it's a 48 minute game against a quality offensive team- but overall it's hard to complain. Ariza and Luke Walton contributed to the solid work LA did on Anthony, with Ariza chipping in on Billups as well. Lamar Odom made some great plays around the basket, and was very effective on switches and closing lanes despite a quiet night offensively.
There were problems. LA's free throw shooting could have cost them the game. They missed 14 foul shots, most of them coming in the first half. Andrew Bynum was a mixed bag (though these days, some would argue "mixed bag" constitutes progress.) The guard play was still a problem. Derek Fisher was 2-6, and still made some questionable decisions offensively. Defensively he improved as the team D got better around him, but when left on an island against guys like Smith- admittedly a tough cover for almost anyone in isolation- tended to get burned. The problem was that nobody behind him stepped up. Phil Jackson gave critical fourth quarter minutes to Shannon Brown, which was nice to see. But Jordan Farmar had three TOs in 13-plus, and Sasha Vujacic was pretty bad. 1-4 from the floor, two personals, and a bad play at the end of the third where he chose to play a loose ball instead of Smith at the arc, giving Denver's sharpshooter (who was a rather dull 2-10 on the night from downtown) enough space to can a three at the buzzer.
Thankfully, JR gave one of those points back, picking up a T for taunting Sasha after the ball went down. Smart.
But all in all, Laker fans should sleep well. This was the biggest game Denver has hosted in eons, and the Lakers went in, hung around, and won it with a great fourth quarter. Now all the pressure goes to the Nuggets for Game 4, because the Lakers know they're back on serve. Thanks to Kobe first, but also because of serious effort. The Lakers worked hard.
Said Kobe after the game, "I rank this right up there with some of the biggest road wins that we've had since I've been a Laker. Because in the past, we've always guys that had a lot of experience," he said. "For our guys, this is brand new. last year, we weren't tested like this. This means a lot, and goes a long way for us as a ballclub."
Agreed. More to come tomorrow.