Following a loss, sometimes it isn't so easy to pick the Player of the Week. It's usually the bad taste of a loss that lingers in our minds, and it tends to put a cloud over whatever good things happened just a game or two before. Kinda one of those "what have you done for me lately?" feelings. Especially in the playoffs when every game matters so much more than the regular season. Wins feel great and everything feels perfect. Losses? They feel like the sky is falling and we end up racking our brains discussing what went wrong.
Personally, I don't think last night's loss should be anything to worry about. Ask yourself if you actually expected the Lakers to sweep the series? I'll assume that most of us did not. Considering that, Game 3 should be the game the Lakers might be expected to lose if they were to lose at least one. The Pepsi Center isn't exactly the easiest to play in, and the young Nuggets did lead the NBA in scoring during the regular season, they played with urgency, and George Karl is still a very good coach. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other team. They are professionals too after all, and they went out and did what they had to. Kudos to them.
Still, it's last night's loss that makes picking this week's Player of the Week a tougher task than it should be. Everything went so right in the Lakers first two wins, but there was just enough wrong (besides losing) that we could place blame on each and every Laker. Especially my two candidates, Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum.
Of course the week started out so nice. Bynum came out and destroyed everything in Game 1. He didn't dominate by dropping bucket after bucket with his dazzling array of low-post moves that have made us forget who Dwight Howard is. We finally saw the Andrew Bynum who is as destructive a defensive force as there is in the NBA. He rebounded everything and blocked everything, without worrying about his offense, and managed to put up a rare triple-double without registering an assist. 10 pts, 13 rebounds, and 10 blocks and the Lakers dominated because the Nuggets couldn't do anything remotely close to the basket all because Andrew Bynum made a note to self that he's a beast whenever he wants to be. Kobe? He "helped" the cause by carrying the offensive load with 31 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
Just one game. That's how long it took the Los Angeles Lakers to show they mean business this postseason. Or, at least, that's how long it took Andrew Bynum to show that he can mean business, and meaning business for Bynum means trouble for the rest of the league. In compiling only the 2nd playoff triple double of points, blocks, and rebounds ever, the precocious Lakers big man showed that defensive dominance is still very much one of the tricks in his bag.
It's a trick the Lakers have missed quite often this season. Drew has rarely been the kind of game changing presence on defense that he's so clearly capable of being. Instead, he's put considerably more energy into expanding his offensive presence, and he's had a great deal of success doing so. But the bottom line is that the Lakers are always at their best when Drew is locked in defensively. Kobe Bryant can score points. So too can Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions, and whoever Ramon Sessions passes the ball to. But nobody on the team can fill the lane on defense, affecting shots in such a wide arc around the rim and cleaning up the glass as effectively as Bynum can. Hell, there's only one person in the league who can do those things as effectively as Bynum can, and Dwight Howard won't be suiting up in these playoffs.
Which means the Lakers have an edge that no other team can match.
In Game 2, it was Kobe's turn to shine with his special brand of showmanship. He scored 38 points as he seemed to hit every shot he wanted to, and some shots that only he can make. Led by Kobe, the Lakers were once again able to build a big lead against Denver, then watch the lead shrink, only for Kobe to single-handedly put a stop to each and every Nuggets threat to make the it a game. Bynum wasn't the beast on defense from Game 1, but he did spark up on O, going for 27 points and 9 rebs.
In the first half, the Mamba uncoiled and struck for 21 points. Arron Afflalo and Corey Brewer were playing decent defense against him, but George Karl chose to send an extra guy at Andrew Bynum whenever the big man touched the ball, so there was nobody to help out on the perimeter. Kobe worked the jab-step and the one-dribble jumper to save any number of bad Laker possessions.
In the second half, he expanded his game and treated the Staples crowd to several ovation-worthy moments. With 7:31 left in the third quarter he hit a ridiculous "and one" fallaway over Afflalo that keyed a 14-0 Laker run. About five minutes later, as the Nuggets were chipping away at the lead, he hustled downcourt on defense for a spectacular chase-down block on Al Harrington. With 4:08 to play in the fourth and Denver making yet another charge, he buried a dagger three to push the lead back up to eight. And with 2:19 left and the Lakers up just four, he stole the ball from Ty Lawson, drove the length of the court and dished to Bynum for an "and one" dunk. Kobe finished with 38 points on 32 shots (including free-throw possessions), had three steals and only a single turnover. It was a masterpiece performance, and had it been even a little less masterful the Nuggets would be heading back to Denver with a split.
It's Game 3 that is the reason for this vote. One hand we have Kobe, who fought the whole game, and kept the Lakers fighting, even if they were playing poorly as they did so. Far too often we've seen the Lakers checkout and give in to what eventually will end up as a blowout. Kobe didn't give up. Because of that, his teammates didn't give up. Of course, Kobe's shot was off, and he could have shown a little more restraint in his 3-point attempts, but he kept the Lakers energy where it needed to be until...Bynum woke up.
If you want to look for an excuse as to why the Lakers were run off the floor to start the game, Andrew Bynum would be a good place to look. Once again, Andrew was disengaged, most likely because he wasn't as involved on offense as he wanted to be. The Nuggets dominated the boards and Bynum often looked confused defending the pick-and-roll. I'm sure you'll read that his teammates didn't get him the ball enough, and that may be true, but what happened to Drew's "note to self?" Just a few nights ago, he was admitting what an animal he could be on defense and realizing how that impacts the Lakers more on defense than dropping the ball in the basket. Last night, it took him a whole half until he decided to be a difference maker. But when he did, it's when the Lakers made it a game in the 3rd Quarter. After going scoreless in the 1st half, he ended up becoming fully engaged (and downright angry) and ending up with 18 points and 12 rebounds, after getting outclassed by JaVale McGee(!). Just for the game to fall back apart after he lost his temper just a little too much after a McGee non-called goaltend.
So there you have it. Each player had a spectacular game, a good game, and an uneven game. Both good enough to win, but frustrating enough to not, especially Bynum, because lately, when he's as good as he was in Game 1, the Lakers are very hard to beat. When both of these guys are going, they have the potential to be the best big/small combo since.....Pau and Kobe....or Kobe and Shaq? We all know how those duos ended up.
Who's week was better?