I'm not going to lie. When I volunteered to take this recap a couple days ago, I didn't think it would be an overly positive one. Call me a defeatist. Call me a realist. A large part of me expected the Lakers to lose. I didn't think it would be a repeat of Game 6 vs. Houston, but I thought the Nuggets were too good to be beaten by anything other than 100% effort and execution at home, and I just didn't see that happening tonight. In fact, I was already thinking about what to write for the inevitable "One game to settle it all" post, ready to analyze why everything would be OK for the Lakers in Game 7.
Can you blame me? When have the Lakers followed up a strong victory with another good performance? When have they played with maximum effort for multiple games? When was the last time we saw the Lakers play like a team that is truly worthy and extremely capable of winning the NBA championship? Now, that's when.
Unbelievable game for the Lake Show. From top to bottom, there is almost nothing to complain about. Besides the first half turnovers (which really snuck up on me, when I saw the half-time stats, it didn't feel like they had that many TOs), and Bynum's poor offensive performance (he really shouldn't look to score if he's starting more than 5 feet out at this point – pass it back out and re-post with better position, please), absolutely nothing went wrong. I can't do a Good, Bad, and Ugly post because we'd be short two sections, so I'm doing this recap stream-of-consciousness style. We'll start at the top.
Kobe F-ing Bryant. One game does not a Great Debate settle. LeBron has had some incredible performances, and even saying that Kobe's Game 6 was as good as or better than LeBron's game 5 is an argument with no winners. I will simply say this. I would not trade the Kobe Bryant that played tonight for anybody in the league. I'm not sure I would trade him for anybody in the history of the league. His game was simply perfect. Totally unselfish, totally in control of every aspect of the game. And when he saw the opportunity to put a foot to Denver's throat, 11 points in the final 3:09 of the first half, and an assist to Ariza for another 3 to boot. A 13 point lead going into the half, and the game was never really close after that. The type of game that makes me thank a higher power for allowing me to be a Lakers fan during the Kobe Bryant era.
The rest of the squad. You really don't need me to tell you about the rest of the individual performances. You know there was really no one who played a bad game. You know that Ariza played out of his mind. 17 points on 9 shots in 22 minutes, in case you forgot. Ridiculous. You also know that Pau and Lamar were both huge tonight. You know Pau played incredible defense. You know that a 27 point win, in enemy territory, in a Western Conference Finals, to close out the series in six games, can only happen when the entire team brings their A game. Tonight, everyone brought their A+ game. Tonight, they were all valedictorians in the game of basketball.
The coaching. I've got more on Phil later, but he really did a great job with all the things that we've been complaining about all series. He kept the rotations tight, and, sensing the kill, he started Kobe, Pau, and Odom in the 4th and played them all until the game was no longer in question. Kobe played all but 1:30 of the 2nd half until the end. Pau played the entire 2nd half before being removed when there was no doubt. Jackson never gave Denver the slightest hint of a lineup that the Nuggets could take advantage of. In short, he did all the things we weren't sure he knew how to do, or thought he was too stubborn to do.
The Lakers were lucky tonight. This takes nothing away from their game. They came to play, they were focused, they played with great energy. They earned this victory as clear as day. But any fan expecting Trevor and Luke to combine for 12-16 shooting and 27 points every game, expecting the Lakers to shoot above 50% from 3 point range, has unreasonable expectations. And I think they got the benefit of some calls too.
The officiating. I set off a bit of a firestorm with this piece about the officiating, written after game 4. Since then, I've been doing my absolute damndest to watch these games with a color-free lens, to see if I thought the officiating was fair. I defended the game 5 refs as calling the game one way the whole game, with the Lakers doing a better job of adapting to the way the game was being called. In game 6, almost every time I saw something I thought to be questionable, the Lakers were the ones getting the call, or not getting called. In fact, I was going to re-watch the game to try and provide evidence that this was the case. Perhaps it's easy to be magnanimous in the face of a big win. But, in the end, I decided it really didn't matter. It didn't affect the outcome of the game too much. If the game had really been called in a one-sided manner, there would have been a free throw discrepancy. Denver's play decided the game much more than the officiating even could have. But, for what it's worth, I can sympathize with a Nuggets fan's frustration with the zebras tonight.
The other team. For all of the compliments paid to our team, it was unfortunate to see Denver play the way they did. Outside of Martin, their effort was sorely lacking tonight. Instead of the Lakers' effort being questioned, it was Denver who weren't closing out on shooters. The Lakers were the ones getting wide open layups and dunks. The Nuggets ball movement wasn't very good, as evidenced by 14 assists on 40 makes, with 13 turnovers. It certainly seemed like they regressed a little bit. I don’t know if they just had a really bad game, or if being faced with elimination brought out the worst in them. Happy as I am to have the Lakers skip game 7, part of me was disappointed that the Nuggets didn't really show tonight.
This is just one man's opinion, but I think a big part of the Nuggets' poor performance derived from their reaction to the officiating in game 5. In Game 4, the Lakers felt the officiating was unfair, but only Phil made a point of talking about it after the game (to my knowledge, I could be wrong). After Game 5, Karl was working the refs angle just like PJ did, and that's fine. That's a coach's job. But the Nuggets players were also complaining about it. The unidentified player (which was absolutely, definitively either JR Smith or NeNe) quote is the biggest example, but K-Mart indicated what he thought about the refs indirectly, and to a lesser extent, so did Billups. (Ed. Note: Really, Chauncey? I thought expected more from you...) I thought then that it was in their heads, and the carry over to Game 6 seemed clear to me.
One of the pivotal moments of tonight's game, for me, was towards the end of the 3rd. The Nuggets were on an 8-0 run, cutting a 20 point lead to 12. The Nuggets were looking potent on offense, and Kobe was off the floor. The game was still very much in doubt. Then, K-mart tries to get a ridiculous charge call on Sasha (as if Sasha would be capable of knocking him down under any circumstances), doesn't get the call, and proceeds to pull his holding-on-to-the appendage routine for the second time in two games. 2 free throws for Sasha. Next possession, Nuggets turn the ball over, and JR reaches out and grabs Sasha for no reason. Two more free throws, 16 point game, never in doubt again. Everyone would agree the Nuggets have grown considerably this season, but they still have a lot to learn about keeping their cool.
Phil Jackson. I leave you with this thought about our estimable coach. We've been on him pretty hard for a lot of different reasons. Fisher's playing time, the rotations, the unwillingness to call a timeout. But he made a strategic decision that, in my opinion, really changed the dynamic in this series. The type of decision that only someone who has won 9 championships has the temerity to make. Someone who knows that the end prize, not the journey, is the ONLY thing that matters. Jackson decided not to really try to win Game 4. The beginning of the 2nd quarter of that game had a lineup of Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, Pau Gasol, and … Josh Powell. He put Lamar at the 3 for the first time pretty much all season, and Bynum didn't even get the extra minutes. Then, when the Nuggets built up a double digit lead in the 2nd half, Jackson made the decision that changed the series. He decided that the Lakers' chances for winning the game were pretty low. The Lakers were on their 11th game in a row, every other night. So he rested Pau Gasol, for 9 minutes. He gave Pau a bigger rest, in one stint, than the big got in any other game in this series. The same amount of rest that he got in games 2 and 3 combined. A bigger rest than Pau got in both games 5 and 6 combined. And while the stats don't necessarily back up my assertion, anybody who watched this series in full would agree that the Pau who showed up in Games 5 and 6 was a different player than the one from the first 4 games. I don't know of many coaches who would have the chutzpah to make that decision, and I'm glad that the one who did is coaching my team.
Here's hoping he can finally make an unquestioned claim to being the best coach in the history of the game in 4-7 games.