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Lakers 107, Nuggets 97: At Long Last, A Quality Road Win

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Well, wasn't this a nice little surprise. Optimism wasn't in tremendous supply around here heading into tonight's contest between the Lakers and Denver Nuggets. Heretofore this season, the Lake Show had played six road games against teams that are currently above 0.500 and had lost five of them. Included in those five L's was a defeat at the Pepsi Center back in mid-November, when the Lakers managed to cough up a 14-point, third-quarter lead. In the context of these season-long road struggles against quality opponents and Wednesday's anger-provoking loss in Dallas, it didn't seem altogether likely that the purp and yellow would take down the Nuggets this evening. And Vegas agreed: for only the second time in 45 games this year, the Lakers were betting-line underdogs.

So much for the art of prognostication. Rudely thumbing their noses at both us and the world's gamblers, the Lakers scored a surprisingly dominant 107 to 97 victory tonight. After a sputtery first period in which they failed to knock down maybe half a dozen point-blank looks, the offense roared into top gear and obliterated the Nuggets' D over the final three quarters. The champs scored a sparkling 1.26 points per possession, fueled by a patient and balanced approach that saw Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest each rack up between 17 and 19 points.

The Nuggets played fairly well early on and actually led by three at halftime, but their offense fell to pieces in the third thanks to superb defensive performances from Artest, who hassled Carmelo Anthony into a low-efficiency shooting night, and Bynum, who guarded the rim as forcefully as we've seen in a long, long time. Though Denver's starting backcourt of Arron Afflalo and Chauncey Billups tormented the Lakers in the first half, those two went quiet in the second, and reserves J.R. Smith and Al Harrington were ineffective as reinforcements. The famed Denver crowd never really made itself heard. In fact, by the end of the fourth, the only sounds coming through the telecast were from the few pro-Laker diehards who infiltrated the Pepsi Center stands.

I can't remember a game this season when all five core Lakers functioned at such a high level. Certainly, we hadn't seen them do so against a quality opponent until tonight. Pau had a well-rounded performance in which he shot well, displayed a nice variety of offensive moves, played strong defense against Kenyon Martin and, most important, asserted himself on the offensive glass. As a team the Lakers straight blasted Denver in the rebounding column: the purple and gold recovered 40% of their own misses, leading to 19 second-chance points, while holding the Nuggets to a puny 17% offensive-rebounding rate. Gasol was the key to controlling the glass, and he got valuable help on that front from Lamar, who had yet another quietly productive game. While watching the Lakers, I don't find myself focusing overmuch on Lamar, but whenever I check out the postgame box score, he's always putting up an 18 and 10, like he did this evening, or something very close to it.

Bynum initially looked like he'd be in for a shaky night. He played with a wrap on his hyperextended right elbow, and when in the first quarter he missed a few bunnies around the rim, one began to suspect that it was hampering his play. Such fears were quickly put to rest: Drew soon found his way to the hoop without great difficulty, repeatedly doing his Vintage Shaq impression on Nene. The Nuggets' center is a big dude and a solid defender, but Drew is a kid learning how to use his well-muscled frame to bowl over guys who are maybe just a little smaller than he is, as Nene found out in this one. On several occasions, Drew simply backed him down under the rim with no pretensions to finesse. And at the defensive end, the big man aggressively challenged Nugget guards who ventured into the paint, which eventually turned the Denver offense into an exclusively perimeter operation.

As for Kobe, he attempted just four shots in the first half, which should've told the Nuggets exactly what awaited them in the second. Often this season, the Mamba has chosen the third quarter as the time to strike, and he did so again this evening. Beginning in the third, Kobe acted as the Lakers' de facto point guard, setting up the offense on the left side of the court and initiating a series of iso's and pick-and-roll sets. Like a quarterback slicing apart an overmatched secondary, he showed peerless decision-making and command of the moment. His pull-up jumpers were on target, and when he elected against shooting himself, he zipped a series of beautiful passes to inside cutters for easy hoops. On the strength of Kobe's masterful oversight of the attack, the Laker offense scored 1.57 points per trip in the third to sway the outcome of the game.

The man of the match, though, was clearly Artest. It hasn't been the easiest season for Ron. His offense has been woeful at times, and he hasn't had as many impact defensive performances we've hoped to see. But tonight the Ronster was magnificent. His relentless D on ‘Melo knocked the Denver star off his game. More shockingly, Ron was a force on offense, scoring 19 points through a combination of power moves inside and deadeye shooting from beyond the arc. We're not going to see Ron play this amazingly well on both ends of the floor very often. If he can just bring this kind of D consistently and understand where his points will come from most naturally, he'll once again be a great asset to the team.

I have plenty more thoughts about this one, but the power is about to go out in my building, and it'll take my Internet connection down with it, so I've got to get this up. I leave with these two questions about Denver's performance:

1.  Do you agree that in the first half, they failed to take proper advantage of the Lakers' tendency to leave shooters open from long distance? To me, it looked like Billups could've had about eight open three-point looks in the first two quarters, but that extra pass from Carmelo or the bigs rarely came his way.

2.  What was up with George Karl's refusal to call a timeout during the Lakers' big run in the third? I thought he'd do so to break the momentum and attempt to fix the Nuggets' defensive struggles, but he didn't, and by the time the TV timeout rolled around, his squad had gone from up three to down eight.

Please discuss, and feel free to work in a T-Mobile Girl LOLpic or two.











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Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.