This is why I have yet to hit the panic button in these playoffs.
Did someone mention that these Lakers are who we thought they were? Perhaps that is why there was little surprise when a flat, tired, unmotivated Lakers team lost a non-critical Game 4. It's also why Lakers fans across the board expected a strong showing and a solid win tonight. That is exactly what they got.
It has never been a question of ability; the Lakers can do it all, and they can do it better than anyone else. As it has been from the beginning, it is a question of motivation. As J.A. Adande put it, this team "seems to require danger to be at its best." That's what they faced in Game 5, where for much of the game they were in danger of being behind in a series after the second game, for the first time in these playoffs – not to mention being on the brink of elimination. But as they have throughout the postseason, they rose to the occasion forced their opponents into that precarious position, instead.
This was a championship level effort in so many ways, but at its most basic, this was simply the Lakers doing what they and everyone else knew they needed to do. The keys to the game were rebounding and defense; they were active in both areas, dominant in the fourth quarter. Simply put, this was a matter of execution and will, and in this game, the Lakers imposed their will and did what they needed to win.
In Game 4, the lethargic Lakers secured 18 fewer rebounds than their opponents, including 11 fewer on offense. Last night, the rebounding game was virtually equal; the Nuggets pulled down one more rebound than the Lakers, including four more on offense.
What was most impressive, however, was L.A.'s rebounding effort in the fourth quarter. During the final period, the Lakers gave up only seven rebounds to the Nuggets, and not a single offensive one. Meanwhile, the Lakers grabbed 14 rebounds, including one offensive board. To say that this fourth quarter rebounding dominance was instrumental in the Lakers' late push to take control of the game is an understatement. The defensive stops fueled their run, but their ability to eliminate Denver's second chance points was key to their ability to take Denver out of the game while turning a late third quarter deficit into an early fourth quarter lead.
At the same time, the Lakers clamped down defensively. They were fairly good on defense throughout the game, holding Denver to 94 points on 38.6% shooting for the game. They had 12 blocked shots (Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom combined for nine of them), and they altered countless others, giving up only 36 points in the paint.
Most impressive, however, was the stretch to end the third quarter and start the fourth, where they literally shut the Nuggets down offensively. John Hollinger describes the turning point:
From the 7:37 mark of the third until the 7:52 mark of the fourth -- a span of nearly a full quarter -- Denver mustered only five points. That was a span of 19 trips in which they a seven-point lead became an 11-point deficit, and the Nuggets never recovered.
During that "span of nearly a full quarter" was a stretch of 11 straight Denver possessions in which the Nuggets failed to score a single point. That 11-possession stretch included four straight turnovers, two of them steals by Gasol. This was the Lakers letting the world know that they're very aware that defense wins championships – and that they are fully capable of living up to that standard.
Offensively, the Lakers weren't too shabby, either. The most impressive offensive statistic was the 25 assists the Lakers tallied on 37 field goals. After several games of ineffective dribble penetration, screen and rolls, and one-on-one isolation play, the Lakers finally got back to their vaunted triangle offense. They swung the ball from one side of the floor to the other, and back again, inside and out.
They also shared the load offensively, putting together an offensive performance that was about as balanced as it could be. As ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz points out, "eight different Lakers attempted between five and 15 shots." Five different Lakers scored in double figures – Kobe Bryant, Gasol, Odom, Derek Fisher, and Trevor Ariza – and Bynum just missed the cut with nine points.
The result was that for the first time in several games, Kobe Bryant was not forced to carry the team offensively, scoring only 22 points in the game while collecting eight assists as he played the role of decoy and facilitator.
But don't let that fool you into thinking Bryant had a subpar game. He was absolutely masterful. Recognizing that Denver's defensive game plan centered on stopping him individually, he accepted the challenge of drawing the double- and triple-team, and when it came, he willingly passed out to teammates, who were able to find high percentage shots. After the game, he explained his approach (via ESPN):
"It was a big gamble for me coming in, but I wanted to change my approach this game and be more of a decoy," Bryant said after adding eight assists, several out of double-teams in the fourth quarter. "The past couple games they really were loading to my side and I figured I could be a decoy and try to give chances to my teammates."
He did so exceedingly well. Over at Forum Blue and Gold, reader Reed added these thoughts on how Kobe beat Denver's defense:
Kobe continues to prove that he is the preeminent closer in the game. Every time down he knew the double was coming, but brilliantly let the full trap come as far out as possible - all to give the other 4 as long as possible to beat 3. A lesser player would have skipped the ball out as soon as the double started. But he is a Man, directing and inspiring his teammates as a true leader - telling Pau and Odom to make plays and putting them in a position to do so.
Bryant's ability to make the pass out of the trap should not be underrated, either. Often times, Denver trapped him so successfully that most players would be completely stuck, forced to either call timeout or turn the ball over. Not Kobe. He always found the pass, and often it was an incredibly difficult one to make, but Bryant executed it to perfection.
Meanwhile, Kobe's effect on Game 5 extended far beyond his play on the court. Just hours after he was criticized by a friend of Henry Abbott's and a supposed Lakers fan for not inspiring his teammates to better play, there was Kobe – drawing on white boards, providing instruction, giving encouragement, and firmly pushing his teammates to rise to the occasion. Where LeBron James allows his teammates to look to him to take over and bail them out in tough situations, Kobe pushed his teammates to step up, and they did.
On one fourth quarter possession, with the clock winding down, Gasol received the ball near the free throw line and immediately looked to Kobe. Instead of taking the ball and forcing a tough three-pointer to beat the buzzer, Kobe told Gasol not to look at him, but to turn around and make a play with the ball himself. Gasol backed down his defender, spun, and hit a fadeaway floater.
Not much later, on the left wing, Gasol and Kobe tried to work a give-and-go play, which resulted in a Denver steal. The next time down the floor, Kobe let Gasol know he wasn't interested in trying that again, but that instead, he should go to work on the block. He drew the trap on the left wing and passed out to Gasol, who again beat his defender for the basket.
Still later, on the play that sealed the victory, Kobe Bryant received the ball on the right wing. He felt out his possibilities to the right and left, and finding no place to go, he dialed in on the basket and elevated. Everyone in the world expected him to take the shot; it was a classic Kobe Bryant shot. Instead, he saw a wide open Lamar Odom standing under the basket, and he fired a bullet pass to Odom for an easy layup.
This was Kobe Bryant at his best – not necessarily scoring, but controlling every aspect of the game, forcing the Nuggets to trap him and then punishing them by finding his teammates, who then exploited the opportunity to play 3-on-4 basketball.
Predictably, Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon spent much of the post-game rehashing their absurd theory that the less Kobe shoots, the more successful the Lakers are. Like many that contribute to the discssion here at SS&R, I am utterly dumbfounded that they continue to interpret a causational relationship between the two. In fact, it is the other way around; Kobe shoots more when the Lakers are behind with time running out, and he feels the need to get them back into it. While JB and Wilbon incorrectly insist that it was because Kobe took fewer shots that his teammates were able to get involved in the game, the opposite was actually true. It was because his teammates played so well, removing any need for Kobe to carry them, that he took only 13 shots.
That brings us to the rest of the Lakers. First among them, Lamar Odom was sublime. He was aggressive on offense, aggressive on the boards, and played like someone who wasn't battling a back injury. He was often the beneficiary of Kobe Bryant passes, and he dominated the paint. His final line of 19 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 assists was excellent, but his game was even better than that. Suffice it to say that if he could play like this on a regular basis, the Lakers would feel nearly invulnerable.
Pau Gasol was also excellent. While he got few touches, taking only eight total shots, he left his mark on the game in no small way. On both ends of the court, he was aggressive. On offense, his passing contributed to the success of Bynum and Odom. On defense, he was insanely active. He blocked five shots, and probably changed at least ten to fifteen more. He protected the basket, kept the Nuggets from getting second chance opportunities, and even ran the break like a point guard.
Andrew Bynum, though still limited in minutes, was also very effective in the early going. It is because he was so aggressive, and so successful offensively, that Gasol's lack of touches (especially early in the game) are of little concern. Had he shot better from the free throw line, he'd have been the sixth Laker in double digits.
Derek Fisher's shot showed up for a game. He, too, was aggressive early on, and he hit some big shots to get the Lakers going. Shannon Brown, however, was simply awesome as Fisher's replacement. He gave the Lakers a huge burst of energy, and his thunderous breakaway dunk off of Gasol's feed, Birdman be damned, ignited the Laker run that blew the game open. He moved constantly without the ball, makingh him an easy target for Kobe's passes out of the traps, and he played very good defense on Chauncey Billups.
Luke Walton played limited minutes, but while he was in he was very effective. Defensively, he continued to make life difficult for Carmelo Anthony, and on offense he brought the passing and triangle IQ that helped make the Lakers' offense so effective in the fourth quarter.
Trevor Ariza was quietly effective, working the baseline give-and-go with Pau Gasol all night long. As always, he made some clutch plays, including one such give and go for a huge basket near the end of the fourth quarter. He scored 12 points on seven shots, and his four assists, two blocks, and one steal weren't too shabby, either, especially considering he didn't commit a single turnover.
As an entire team, the Lakers came to play in Game 5. They played with tremendous energy, and the defensive lockdown in the fourth quarter, combined with the mamoth rebounding effort, was truly a thing to behold. Because the rest of the team showed up, Kobe was able to share the offensive load, exploiting the Nuggets' defense with his passing far more effectively than he could have by going 1-on-3. They played with energy and intensity, but they also played with poise and composure where they could have fallen apart at the seams (much like the Nuggets did, proving that some things never change).
This was the effort Lakers fans have been waiting for. It was the complete opposite of Game 4, and once again, those watching got a look at a team truly capable of winning a championship. Will they show up for Game 6, or allow the Nuggets to force a Game 7? None can say. But for now, Lakers fans can revel in the fact that their team's championship aspirations remain alive and well.