First, let's get something straight. You're going to hear from every perspective (fans, haters, pundits, bloggers) that the Lakers "stole" this game. That is just not true. In fact, it makes about as much sense as crowning the Lakers champions before the postseason even began. Both are foolish overreactions to early results. When it comes to the playoffs, there's a reason they play the games; when it comes to a single game, there's a reason they play all 48 minutes.
The Lakers didn't "steal" this game. To suggest that they did is to imply that the Nuggets already "owned" it. What the Lakers did was play better over the full 48 minutes. Sure, they had some rough stretches, and there were times when it seemed the Lakers would drop another series opener at home. Fortunately, the game didn't end near the end of the first quarter, or shortly after the start of the fourth. It ended after 48 minutes, and conveniently (though surely not coincidentally), the Lakers played a game that put them ahead not somewhere in the middle, but at the end of those 48 minutes.
With that out of the way, there's a lot that we can take from this game. Plenty of negatives, and plenty of positives, as well. Perhaps that very fact, in itself, should be encouraging to Lakers fans: In a game that contained far more negatives for the Lakers than they (or we) would have preferred, the Nuggets were never able to pull away, and the Lakers still won. This is a recurring theme in Lakerland, and in such a situation, the fans tend to point out that the Lakers aren't likely to continue playing so poorly. So far, they've been right. The Lakers will be better in most of the games to come, and that does not bode well for Denver.
Click on through for a closer look at how the Lakers pulled of this impressive, hard fought win...
There is plenty to talk about on both sides of the coin, but the Lakers won this game, so we're going to focus on the good. On Thursday, as we prepare for Game 2, we'll look at what went wrong in this game, and what the Lakers need to do better the second time around. For now, let's look at what led to this impressive win, and at the top of that list is Kobe Bryant.
Kobe carried his team to this win. His teammates came out flat, but not Kobe. While the rest of the starters went 4-13 in the first quarter, Bryant shot 4-8 for eight points and two rebounds, making sure sure the team didn't get off to another 17-1 start. He scored 10 in the second period, and led the charge in turning a 13-point deficit into a last-second 1-point lead entering halftime. After a quiet third quarter, he came alive in the fourth. The Lakers entered the final period down two; Kobe shot 4-5, and hit his only three-point shot and all of his nine free throws, putting up 18 points in the frame – one less than the Lakers' entire total in the previous period. (Doug Collins, if you're reading, that's 3.6 points per shot.) His biggest plays down the stretch, however, were a huge assist on a Derek Fisher 3-pointer with two and a half minutes to go, and a monster rebound on the final play of the game, foiling Denver's last hope to tie or win the game.
Most impressive of all, Kobe did all the right things throughout the game. He didn't settle for jumpshots, and went repeatedly into the post and to the front of the hoop. 10 of his 28 shots were close to the hoop, and nine others were medium-range jumpers (as opposed to "long twos"). He took only three 3-pointers, making two, and only six "long twos" — meaning that only 21% of Kobe's shots were high difficulty, low percentage shots. In all, a very balanced offensive game from the best player in the world.
Despite trailing most of the game, Bryant never tried to do too much by himself; his teammates struggled, but it wasn't because Kobe prevented them from getting involved. He dominated the fourth quarter, but he only took five shots. And down the stretch, he drew the triple-teams and then trusted guys like Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher to make big plays, which they did.
On the last play of the game, it is interesting to note that Kobe, not Trevor Ariza, was the third rebounder. Ariza is the taller player, the better jumper, and (at this point in their careers) the more athletic of the two – but with the game on the line, nothing could keep Kobe Bryant from the ball, and sure enough, it was Kobe who secured the game-ending rebound.
Oh, and did I mention that he guarded Chauncey Billups, J.R. Smith, and Carmelo Anthony? Feeling the pulse of the game, and maintaining a sense of which player was in attack mode, Kobe guarded everyone that mattered — and he did so well. His energy and relentless effort on defense was classic leadership by example, and certainly went a long way to inspire the same kind of effort from his teammates.
Finally, don't be fooled by his 13-28 on shot attempts in the box score. While that's a very good shooting percentage (.464), he was far more efficient than that number shows. He made 12 of his 13 free throws and two of three three-pointers, giving him an Actual True Shooting Percentage* of 59.7%. For Doug Collins' information, he scored at a very solid rate of 1.43 points per shot.
Ariza shot 2-8, including 1-4 from distance... and I don't care. His one 3-pointer was a huge one, and his three steals were much more important to the end result than his six missed shots. In particular, Lakers fans will likely remember Ariza for a very long time for the steal on the inbounds pass with 30.5 seconds left in the game. Kobe's rebound may have ended the Nuggets hope for a final shot, but it was Ariza's steal that won the game.
If you were watching, then I probably don't need to describe this play to you. Still, there are a few things I want to point out. First is that on the very next play, Chauncey Billups hit a huge, contested three-pointer. Had Ariza not stolen the ball, Billups might have been able to do that 20 seconds earlier, greatly improving the Nuggets' chances of winning the game.
Second, watching the replay makes it clear how well Ariza planned this play. He didn't play the pass, and he didn't play the passer. He played the floor. He read the play, saw that there were no open Nuggets, and when Billups broke free with the Nuggets dangerously near a 5-second violation, he immediately knew that that was the only place Carter would be able to pass to. A keen awareness of the overall situation was what created this steal, not just a quick gamble and a bit of luck. He was heading to intercept that pass before it was thrown. In fact, I think his recognition of the play that had developed on the floor was so good that he was moving to intercept the pass before Carter had even seen it. His read on the play was brilliant, and it sealed the game for L.A.
Third, Ariza deserves a lot of credit for how he handled the ball after he stole it. He was keenly aware of the situation, the game clock, and his own limitations. He had the opportunity to attack the rim and possibly get a dunk out of it, which we all know Ariza loves to do. But that would have been the wrong move, for several reasons. Most importantly, it would have left too much time on the clock for the Nuggets to come back. On top of that, there was a chance Billups would foul him rather than give up the dunk, and I'm inclined to think that he was all too aware of his tendency to split a pair at the charity stripe, which in this case would not have been good enough. Instead, he reversed the ball, burned 20 seconds off the clock, and got the ball in the hands of the team's best free throw shooter. Two guaranteed points, and not enough time for Denver to respond.
It was a truly heady play, and it characterized Ariza's play throughout the entire game. Another example came earlier in the game, when Ariza stole the ball on the right wing and led the break. Chauncey Billups stood between him and the basket, and it was clear he wouldn't make it easy for Trevor. At the same time, Derek Fisher, the worst finisher at the rim in the NBA, was trailing, and that wasn't a sure thing, either. So Ariza took the ball to Billups, put his back to him, and backed him down, feeding Fisher for what was now a wide open layup that even Derek could hit. A truly brilliant play, and it's the kind of thing Lakers fans are growing accustomed to with Ariza.
Perhaps we Lakers fans owe Phil Jackson an apology. Personally, I wouldn't have started Fisher. And if I had, I would have yanked him after he went 0-6 and still seemed as eager to shoot as Sasha Vujacic. Apparently, this is why Phil Jackson coaches the Lakers, and not me. Fisher hit a bit three at the first half buzzer, giving the Lakers a 1-point lead entering the break. Then, he hit 4-6 shots in the second half, and was a huge part of the Lakers' come-from-behind campaign. His 5-13 performance doesn't look great on paper, but when you consider that he hit five of his last seven, Phil's decision to stick with him starts to look pretty good.
Speaking of Vujacic, however... that's one guy that needs to be nailed to the bench. The Broken Machine shoots too much, doesn't make enough, and his pesky, tenacious defense from last year has turned into a predictable parade of team fouls that earn the Lakers lots of time in the penalty. He's been next to useless, and he doesn't show any sign of improving.
Here is where I want to take a moment to make a key distinction between D-Fish and The (Foul) Machine. Yes, I've called for reduced minutes for Fisher, though in general I actually do want him to get his playing time in this series. But in Fisher's case, it was primarily because of matchup issues with Aaron Brooks, who gave Derek fits; last night, it wasn't so much that he was missing, but more that he was missing and hogging the ball. But in general, I think this is a decent matchup for Fisher, and there can be no doubt that a Derek Fisher who is on his game is vital to the Lakers' success.
The big difference here is that thre is every reason to believe Fisher will find his shot. Through the first six months of the season, he shot an incredible 42.1% from beyond the arc. He hit a slump in April, and after improving moderately against Utah, struggled again against Houston – but there's no doubt in my mind that Derek can find that shot, and when he does, it will go a long way for the Lakers. Last night, Fish was 3-6 from long distance, and as always, his threes have a way of coming when the Lakers need them most.
The same cannot be said for The Broken Machine. He was hot in December and April, but for the bulk of the season he shot at or below .333. In the playoffs, he's shooting .303 from distance. For a player whose primary function is to hit threes and play defense, his inability to do either very well renders him useless. Unfortunately, this is not a slump; this is a season-long trend, and as such, I have little hope for him "breaking out of it." Leaving him on the bench will result in better shot selection and less time in the penalty for the Lakers.
Defense & Intensity
Both of these were absent to start the game. Aside from Kobe, the Lakers came out flat, they didn't play any defense, and they didn't play with any sense of urgency. All that changed when the bench came in. They played excellent defense, hustled on both ends of the court, played like they wanted to be there, and began cutting into Denver's 13-point lead. When the starters returned, they joined the party. For most of the rest of the game, the effort was admirable, the intensity was palpable, and the defense was often quite impressive. At times the Lakers struggled to score, but their defense kept them in the game. In the critical fourth quarter, where the Lakers turned what was looking more and more like a loss into an impressive win, they played absolute lockdown defense, coming up with all the stops they needed. The reffing was some of the worst I've seen, and that's all I'm going to say about that – but instead of succumbing to it, the Lakers fought through it, and succeeded despite it. As Kobe mentioned, they didn't capitulate this time. Intead, they rose to the challenge, corrected their early problems, and fought back into the game.
Personally, I'll take this kind of win over an easy blowout any day. Sure, blowouts are fun for the winning team, but hard fought games are more useful in preparing a team for the difficulty of winning a championship, and ultimately more satisfying. As Kobe said in his post-game press conference, these kinds of things happen in basketball. The Lakers coming out flat to start the game isn't some kind of traveshamockery, it's just basketball, and it happens. The biggest difference is that against Houston, the Lakers let it get to them. They failed to respond, they did not rise to the challenge, and they were not resilient. They did not correct their early mistakes, and they did not play hard.
Last night, they were just the opposite. They refused to accept their early failures, and they responded with more energy, effort, and intensity. They clamped down on defense, and they rose to the challenge. They played hard, never gave up on the game, and showed the resiliency of champions. This is the kind of challenge that gives championship hopefuls the opportunity to become bona fide championship contenders. Last night, the Lakers seized that opportunity. If they get to the Finals, they will be better prepared because of challenges like this, and those presented by Houston in the previous round. If they win the Finals, it will be because along the way, they learned to overcome these challenges.
As Lakers fans, this game should not frustrate or disappoint you. It should give you hope. In this game, the Lakers showed that they are still learning, and they proved themselves already to be better than they were in the previous round. If they continue to learn and improve as they have throughout the playoffs, I have no doubt that they will be ready when June rolls around. As a Lakers fan, this should encourage you. Or, as Sideout11 put it, it should put you on Cloud 9.
That is why it's just wrong to say that the Lakers "stole" this game. The Nuggets never owned it, and to their credit, the Lakers never forgot that. They started slow, but they played all 48 minutes, and in the end, it netted them a very satisfying victory.
As a Lakers fan, no drug can create the kind of high I felt after last night's win.
* Usually, True Shooting Percentage is calculated using a statistical estimate of what percentage of a player's free throws come from and-1 and thre-point attempts, using league-wide historical data. As we have Kobe's actual numbers from last night's game, such an estimate is not necessary, allowing us to calculate his actual TS% more accurately.