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Lakers-Nuggets Game Two: The Mamba Takes Over

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When Kobe Bryant sat out seven games in mid-April, it was apparent to anyone watching closely that he could've played in at least some of them if he'd wanted to. We know what Kobe's like (taciturn, a little crabby) when he's really hurt, and this wasn't that. He was in good spirits and having fun dabbling in assistant coachhood. There was an injury, yes, but he was mostly resting up, just as he did on the final night of the regular season when he elected to sit instead of chasing the scoring title. Tonight that restraint on his part, his willingness to stand down to preserve strength for future battles, paid off. Kobe controlled Game Two from beginning to end and, despite having a decade or more over many players on the court with him, looked like the youngest and sprightliest guy out there.

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.

In the regular season the Nugs ranked 21st in defensive efficiency, the worst mark of any team that made the playoffs, and so far that's carried over nicely into the first round. In both games the Lakers have scored 1.12 points per possession. Part of it has to do with the matchups (Denver clearly has no one to slow down Bynum), part of it has been crisp execution by the Lakers, and part of it is just the individual playmaking talents of the Lakers' big three. Kobe, Drew and Pau Gasol didn't get a lot of scoring help tonight, but by themselves they were so good that it didn't matter. I thought this series will go long and I still think the Nuggets will take a game and maybe two, but George Karl must be feeling like he doesn't have quite enough clubs in the bag.

A few supporting Lakers made nice contributions. Ramon Sessions was shaky for the first few quarters but got it together in the fourth. He's not staying in front of Lawson well, but we knew that defense isn't his strong suit. On the whole he's been a positive presence in the series. I like what Devin Ebanks did tonight too. He had eight rebounds in 24 minutes, and though he missed five of his seven shots, they were all quality looks. Devin is more than holding his own during MWP's suspension.

Then there's Jordan Hill. If it weren't for the disturbing accusations made against him by a former girlfriend, he'd be the feel-good story of the Laker postseason. On the court he's certainly giving the Lakers what they need: activity and scrappiness around the rim to counter the athleticism of Kenneth Fareid and JaVale McGee. Right now Hill is what we thought we'd be getting from Josh McRoberts this year. He's the Lakers' second-best rebounder (10 rips in 21 minutes tonight)... or the first-best when Bynum's checked out mentally.

These teams have now played six times this season, and the Lakers have won five. Psychologically that has to be weighing on the Nuggets. But their home crowd is excitable and really hates the purple and gold, so Game Three should have a very different flavor. Aside from their failure to stop Bynum or Kobe, the Nugs' main problem is an inability to generate points in the half court. So far they've only had success in transition and off missed shots. They need a consistent outside threat to emerge, as through two games they've made 8 of 33 from long distance. That trend will almost definitely come to a halt back in Denver, and if it doesn't the series will end in a Laker sweep.










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