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Lakers-Nuggets Game Five: Yuck


For comfort, think back to 2009 and the second round. Against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs that year, the Lakers turned in several no-show performances of the kind we suffered tonight. Yao Ming played in only the first game of that series, but instead of pile-driving an overmatched opponent the Lakers played with energy and attentiveness only when strictly necessary, letting Houston drag what should've been a short series to a seventh game. It was lame as hell and led to a lot of handkerchief-wringing among the media and fans. Many opined that such listlessness was a sign that the Lakers lacked championship character. But go to Staples Center and look up at the rafters, and you'll see the 2009 championship banner still hanging there. The point being, games like this don't necessarily mean anything. By Saturday night, we'll probably be turning our attention to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and tonight's Game Five debacle will be a fading bad memory.

I mean, did you really think this Lakers team would make it easy on us? OK, I did. I thought the Game Four victory had broken the Nuggets' backs, that the Lakers were ready to handle their business, that they'd bring a ruthless focus from the opening tip. Aheh. I was wrong about both them and the Nugs. It's often said that teams facing elimination play "with desperation," but that's not how Denver approached this game. Desperate people are rarely so calm and impressively poised.

The Nuggets had good energy, but they won because they took it possession by possession, reading the game and figuring out how the Laker defense could be attacked. They saw that Andrew Bynum was checked out mentally, so they had Andre Miller patiently unlock the Laker D with dribble penetration. When the Lakers began the second half with quick scores by Kobe Bryant and Ramon Sessions to cut the lead to two, they didn't panic, responding with a 10-0 run of their own. Nor, late in the fourth, did they panic when Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake almost erased the Denver lead with a burst of unlikely threes. In the final period the Nugs turned the ball over only once and made 8 of 11 free throws, good enough to get the job done as things were getting crazy.

The Nuggets fell behind in the series because for most of the first four games, the Lakers had the three best players on the court. Several Denver players have been pretty good, but there just haven't been enough of them playing at a superstar level. Tonight they had two of them. Andre Miller (24 points on 14 shots, including free-throw possessions) was in complete control of the Denver attack. His teammates made only 1 of 17 three-point attempts, and if they weren't so butt-awful at those both Andre's assist total (8) and Denver's offensive efficiency (108.5) would've been much higher. And JaVale McGee (21 points, 14 rebounds) was so good in the second half that we all stopped making goaltending jokes at his expense. Denver got a decent game from Arron Afflalo and a strong first half from Kenneth Fareid, both of whom were key to building up the big lead the Lakers couldn't overcome, but Miller and JaVale gave them the elite performances they badly needed.

Only one of the Lakers' big three matched their effort. Kobe couldn't hit much in the first quarter but got his offense humming by getting to the line in the second. He gathered heat in the third (11 points) and spit flames in the fourth (14 points). His last two three point attempts with under 30 seconds remaining weren't far from going in. If either of them had, Staples would've exploded in incredulous glee. Even so, he was pretty much the only reason this wasn't a 20-point asskicking.

Pau Gasol just had one of those nights. He missed some easy looks in the first half (1 for 7), which seemed to take him out of his offensive groove. In the third quarter he played nine minutes but took only one shot. He was quietly decent in the fourth (2-for-3 shooting, four rebounds, a steal). When JaVale stuffed his dunk attempt with 1:53 left in the game, it read to some as another Pau-being-soft moment, but it was really just an awesome play by McGee. So Pau did some things OK, but his bad form in the first three quarters were a big factor in the loss.

Nobody was a bigger factor in the loss than Andrew Bynum. What's there really to say about Drew at this point? He's a weird dude who at times just doesn't give a fuck. Tonight was one of those times. It was the worst defensive performance we've seen from him all year. He had no awareness of where the Nuggets were attacking from, defended with zero exertion and repeatedly got caught motionless while McGee hammered down one of his many, many dunks. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, which seems like an acceptable stat line, but I don't need to tell you guys how much he sucked. (It was a lot. He sucked a lot.)

It wasn't a banner night for the supporting cast, either. Ramon Sessions hit a big three late but looked totally lost the rest of the night. By the fourth quarter George Karl was giving him the Rondo treatment, shading Sessions' man over to Kobe as extra help. Devin Ebanks was a nonfactor. Matt Barnes missed five of six three-point attempts and is shooting 10% (2 for 20) from long distance in the series.

The Lakers will fly to Denver tomorrow for Game Six on Thursday, and now they have to deal with a Nuggets team that really thinks it can win. I'm still not really worried. I've seen the Lakers do this too many times to get more than mildly annoyed when they mail in playoff games. Obviously, though, the longer this series goes, the more they run the risk of slipping up, and the less downtime they'll get if and when they face the Thunder.

What's different about 2009 is, those Rockets were playing to their peak. These Nuggets, though... they can still play better. What if Danilo Gallinari stops taking horrible shots? What if someone finally starts making open threes? The Lakers are the better team and have two chances to win one, which means they're still the heavy favorites to advance, but they'd do well to stop dicking around and recognize they've got a real fight on their hands.










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