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Lakers 112, Nuggets 118: Come Back Soon, Andrew Bynum

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It was fun while it lasted, the Lakers' undefeated start to the season. But time marches ever forward and drops the occasional loss on even the most charmed franchises. Tonight the Lakers fell in Denver by the final score of 112 to 118. Even though they were favored in this game and, on balance, most of us probably expected them to push their record to 9-0 against a Nuggets team that had been looking a bit shaky, it's not stunning that the perfect start ended this evening. When the NBA announced its schedule last August, a lot of us circled tonight's game as a good bet for the Lakers' first L.

The Nuggets exposed the Lakers' poor interior defense, which has been a soft spot this season and will continue to be until Andrew Bynum returns. Denver's guards and wings penetrated off the bounce over and over again, creating easy looks at the rim and powering an attack that scored 1.23 points per possession. Pau Gasol did almost nothing to protect the paint. Nene easily backed him down into the post a number of times and finished with 18 points on 15 shots (including free-throw possessions). The situation inside wasn't helped by the absence of Theo Ratliff, who was inactive because of knee tendonitis, or by Phil Jackson's curious decision to limit Lamar Odom to 26 minutes played. For long stretches, either Ron Artest or Matt Barnes played the four, and by the end of the game Gasol, who logged 44 minutes to tie his season high, looked completely winded. Not that Denver fans will have any sympathy for the Lakers' thin frontcourt since the Nuggets, for their part, were without either Kenyon Martin or Chris Andersen.

Losses that involve blown leads are always especially irksome, and tonight the Lakers managed to waste a cushion that reached 14 points in the third quarter. An offense that had been lighting up Denver with crisp ball movement, offensive boards and timely three-point shooting lost focus and direction down the stretch. An 11-0 Denver run, their third double-digit run of the game, put the Nuggets up nine with 2:13 left. Kobe Bryant then scored five straight to spark hopes that the Lakers would somehow steal the win, but the final possessions were a carnival of poor decision-making and wild shot attempts. The team that played smarter in crunch time was rewarded with the W.

If you're wondering what happened in the game's first seven minutes, you'll have to ask someone who attended in person. The Celtics-Heat undercard lasted about nine hours, so the television audience didn't get tuned into the Pepsi Center until the first quarter was more than half over. When TNT finally started broadcasting from Denver, some of the main themes were already becoming apparent. Kobe was taking a lot of shots, mostly midrange stuff off the high screen-and-roll. Gasol was looking out of sorts, and the speed of Denver's reserve guards Ty Lawson and J.R. Smith was starting to have an impact.

Early in the second period, the Lakers built an eight-point lead behind the energetic play of the bench. Shannon Brown, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes pushed the pace in transition, leading to this fun little moment.

The Nuggets, unforch, quickly recovered by attacking the rim straight on. In a span of seven possessions they scored 16 points. Ten of those were by Nene on pure power moves: a dunk, two layup "and ones" and a pair of free throws. Kobe got hot toward the end of the first half to put the Lakers up five at the break, but the defense was clearly springing some ugly leaks.

The beginning of the third was the best offensive stretch of the night for the Lake Show. They scored 13 on their first seven possessions, in the course of which Kobe became the youngest player in NBA history to hit 26,000 career points. It seemed for a moment like they were ready to make the game theirs, but the offense went frigid just as Carmelo Anthony and Smith warmed up. Even though Shannon hit a three at the end of the period to push the lead to eight, there was a feeling that the opportunity to really step on the Nuggets' windpipes had slipped away.

In the fourth quarter the Lakers got utterly hammered. Lawson, Smith, Anthony and Billups took turns running a layup drill when they weren't hitting jumpers. The Lakers, meanwhile, alternated turnovers with impatient offensive sets ending with poorly conceived outside shot attempts. Three possessions toward the end epitomized their generally thoughtless approach. With 1:01 left and the Lakers down four, Kobe tosses up a hasty three-point attempt with plenty of time on the shot clock. Next trip, Shannon feeds a closely guarded Artest in the corner, at which point Ron dribbles in front of Carmelo before jacking up a challenged three. Next trip, Kobe finds Pau at the rim with a nice feed, but Pau fails to finish strong and gets stripped by Melo.

Only Shannon and Artest had efficient offensive nights for the Lakers. Kobe scored 34 points but needed 37 shots to get there. Pau scored 17 on 20 shots in his first poor game of the season. He did good work on the glass but otherwise looked out of it. Barnes and Blake didn't do much in limited time. Odom struggled as well, but I do think Phil should have given him more run to help shore up the interior D. Denver got a great performance from Melo (32 points on 26 shots) and productive play from their bench.

The Lakers now head home to face Phoenix on Sunday, followed by a three-game trip to the Midwest next week.











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