Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lakers-Nuggets Game Three: Kobe Bryant Has His Way In Colorado (Again)

Tonight in Colorado, Kobe Bryant willed the Lakers to the series lead, with a flat-out dominating performance, especially late. The game was also notable for the continued late-game failures of the Nuggets, which is to say, the Nuggets remain coached by George Karl. If I could double up my wager on Lakers in seven now, I would. And now, the micro-blog.

In the first quarter, Carmelo Anthony made the short-term case that he's the best player on the floor by getting to the line for eight free throws, leading to 14 points. The Lakers started 4 of 10 from the line, and Nene outplayed Andrew Bynum, but the Lakers got close at the end of the quarter on makes by Jordan Farmer and Lamar Odom, and it was 28-26 Nuggets after one. Closing out quarters has been a consistent problem for the Nuggets, and a consistent win for the Lakers; had they made their free throws, they'd be ahead.

In the second, the Nuggets get some early separation as Melo continued to drive the action with boards, an assist and steals; the latter is 3 in the first 14 minutes of action, which shows you just how D'd up he is for this playoff. (Melo, for his career, is a steal per game kind of guy, which isn't all that impressive given his big minutes.) Chris Anderson continued to be one of the best values in the Association this year, and I'm more of a fan of his for Sixth Man of the Year than I am Jason Terry. The Lake Show closed the gap with Melo on the bench, with Kobe Bryant making back to back shots to tie it at 39-all.

After a timeout, the Nuggets ran off five in a row, but a Kenyon Martin miss -- his fifth against zero makes -- followed a Pau Gasol dunk, and Bryant drew a Melo foul -- and that became meaningful later. Denver stretched the lead to 8 on good ball movement, but the Lakers ended the quarter positively with an Ariza three and a Bryant make on a Kleiza technical At the half, it was Denver 52, LA 48.

In the third, the Lakers tied it up in a blink with Bynum and Bryant. Dahntay Jones then had his best sequence of the series with a foul draw on Bryant, two makes and a nice lay up, forcing one of those Coach Phil Jackson is Actually Paying Attention Tonight timeouts. The way that Jackson has managed his timeouts in this series, as opposed to the Rocket one, tells you all you need to know about his confidence level.

Out of the timeout, Bryant had all day to measure and make from the arc. Melo got blocked at the rim by Bynum, forcing a turnover; it's his third block and a big play. The game got really grindy, with both teams jawing at the refs, and Nugget Fan sangs the Bull S*** Song. The Nugs contested everything on defense as Ariza got worked on the sidelines; he would return and be huge. Jones shoved Bryant in the back on a layup, and Bryant's refusal to sell the foul kept it from being a flagrant; since Kobe's had his complement of technicals this year, he held his tongue.

Melo then worked Walton like a speed bag, feeding Martin down low for a dunk. After a steal, the game turned into rugby with multiple floor burns, ending in a jump ball from the blown fast break. The game got increasingly chippy, and Fisher picked up a technical after some back and forth with Martin, with Billups missing the free throw to make up for the bad karma of Martin also not getting whistled. Nugget Fan really getting loud here. Jones drove and scored over Gasol, very impressive, to make the lead six.

Perhaps the biggest hidden play of the game happened with Walton selling Anthony's fourth foul; Melo hooked Walton to get to the rim, and Walton sold the elbow enough for get the call, and it's the right call, but it's also one that isn't always whistled, particularly at home. Walton then fed Bryant for a slam at the cup, and that's also Jones' fourth foul; the old school three tied it up, and that erased the Nuggets 7-point lead for the quarter. As Ariza went to the locker room, the refs hurt the flow some more, and a Billups make gave the Nuggets the lead again.

Bryant got Martin one-on-one, and that's a matchup the Lakers must love, but Bryant settled for the jumper and misses. Walton earns another possession by taking the charge from J.R. Smith. Anderson can't handle Gasol down low, but the big man misses another free throw, LA's 11th of the night. Smith can't get a call on Vujacic at the arc, but the refs make up for the non-call by giving the Nuggets possession, and Billups took advantage with a three; this is clearly the most officiated game of the series, and that's not a compliment. Bryant knew what kind of game this is, and picked up Martin's fourth with a chunky leaner.

Smith with a three from Billups at the buzzer, and the refs got Anthony Carter for a Vujacic flop; wow, the refs are just terrible tonight, and for the road team. Karma demands a Machine miss, which is followed by a Bryant airball from three. Nugget Fan was wild loud as the Nuggets got multiple offensive rebounds, finished by an Anderson putback. Vujacic stopped the bleeding with a three that Billups got right back; great back and forth here. Vujacic feeling it and missed, and at the end of the quarter Smith makes a huge three out of a bad Billups pass, and marks the occasion with a stupid taunting technical at Vujacic as Carter tried to get him away. Unreal talent, unreal knucklehead, unreal play, and unreal officiating. I've watched a lot of hoop in my life, and I don't think I've ever seen a guy like Smith; he makes Stephen Jackson look sane. For once, the Nuggets own the end of quarter, and it was 79-71 with twelve minutes to go. The biggest point about the surge is that it buys time for Anthony to stay on the bench, because no one believes this is going to be decided before the final minutes.

In the Lemur interview, George Karl noted how his team lost composure in the third. And to think, some people wonder about George. Bryant made the taunting tech to cut it to 7. Vujacic continued his bad play with a moron reach in. Smith went again from the arc and missed; only in Denver can a guy who is 2 for 9 take a heat check. Odom owned Anderson down low for an easy one. Kleiza missed a tough shot in transition, and here come the Lakers again, but Anderson made a great weak-side block. Billups misses the transition three, and the Nuggets are 4 for 21 now. Farmer travels on defensive pressure, then compounds the error with a stupid tech that could have got him tossed. Wow, these teams aren't playing smart. Billups makes that one, then watches Anderson miss in traffic; the Lakers turn, but Smith couldn't take advantage, and Carter got the whistle on Gasol down low. Anthony returned with 9:26 left as Karl tries to get the game to stop being so ugly; he was joined by Nene. Good Laker ball movement ends with a Gasol dunk. Nene can't score over Gasol, but he can pick up his fifth foul, and that's a problem all over, as Gasol is starting to make his presence felt. The Nuggets needed Anthony to take the game over, and it just didn't happen.

Gasol drew Anderson's second on another touch call. After two makes, it was a 2-point game, and that's another one for the Conspiracy File. Lakers D up hard and forced a wild Martin miss; that's now 0 for 8 for the quarter. A messy Laker possession is ended with Anderson pulling the chair on Gasol; at the other end, the Birdman blows it at the rim, pouted at the refs, and watched as the Lakers took the lead on an Ariza three. The Nuggets are really showing their knucklehead weakness tonight. Anthony finally got to the line, but only makes one to tie it back up. Bryant scored over Smith, then Smith got it back with a great pass to Martin for the flush. Gasol couldn't finish over Anderson, and Billuips is stopped at the rim, but Martin followed for the lead lay up. Big crowd noise again from the Denver faithful, and you can't ask for more from them. Halfway through the fourth as we went to commerce, it was a 2-point Nugget lead.

The Lemur cameras follow up on Coach Philip abusing Odom in the timeout, but he didn't remove him. Smith got away with touching Bryant on a three, who missed, but the Lakers get the team board. An awkward drive and dish by Ariza finds him again in the corner for the three-ball make. Anthony couldn't get a call on a drive, but the Nuggets get the team board, and Billups hit a corner three on the inbounds, drawing Bryant's fourth foul, and he makes for the three-point lead and Kobe Frustration. Billups was the Nuggets best player this half. Gaosl with an easy make down low, and Anthony's nightmare half continued with a miss. Nene guarded Gasol perfectly to no avail, and the Lakers took the lead back, 90-89, with 3:45 left. Fisher then does the same thing to Smith, and the Nuggets lead. Bryant drives on Anthony, collects the foul on Smith, and goes for the old-school three, but that's the 12th Laker miss from the stripe. Billups missed the three, and Fisher has to call time on the ground. We went to commerce with 2:46 left, and yet another classic game on tap. It's every night this year in the Association, this insane drama...

Smith D's Bryant nicely, and he missed late in the clock. Ariza got his fourth away from the ball on Anthony, and he takes the easy points to give the Nuggets the lead back. 2:15 left. Fisher gets to the rim, but Nene is there first, and the charge call keeps him on the floor and gives the Nuggets the ball. Good ball movement by the Nuggets ends in a Smith miss from the arc, and Martin took an over the top on Odom, sending him to the line. Odom made the first and missed the second to tie it back up. Smith made a great drive and pull up, owning Fisher; 2 point lead, but Kobe Bryant Does Not Care, and his jaw-dropping three changes the lead again. Billups to the rack to Martin, but he couldn't finish, and Jackson called time with 46.4 left and a 1-point lead. Bryant, I think, has had quite enough of the doubts that he isn't the best player in this series.

Bryant to the baseline to draw Smith's fourth foul; no chance for the defender on that. Just one make from the Mamba makes us all wonder if the Lakers are just going to miss too many free throws to win this game; it's a 2-point Lake Show lead with 37.1 seconds left. Martin can't inbound before five seconds are up, and Nugget Fan is having nightmare memories of Game One; and it happens *again*, with Ariza collecting the tip from Odom. Anthony has to take his sixth to prevent the game ender, but Ariza makes that moot with two makes. 99-95 with 35 seconds left. Billups overdribbles and got bailed out by Odom. Billups makes two to keep it in doubt, but the Lakers can actually execute an inbounds pass, and Martin sent Bryant to the line; that was the end of his night as well. With Nugget Fan raining down the hate, Bryant made both. Billups got nothing but air from 35 feet, and Jones put Bryant on the line with violence as Nugget Fan starts leaving. Courtisde mics pick up some ugliness as the Mamba makes it a six point lead. The game ends on Nugget misses.

Pretty great game, despite the over officiating, and that's the first loss at home for Denver in their past 16 games. I can't shake the feeling that the Nuggets actually have a better team here -- the Lakers needed every ounce from Bryant tonight, who had 41 and looked visibly spent for perhaps the first time in his NBA career, as he was bent over double during his Lemur post-game interview -- but when you have George Karl as your coach, you are going to blow big games late with things like taunting technicals and failed inbounds passes. Yeesh.

Lakers 2, Nuggets 1, and if you don't think this series is going long -- Game Four will see a referee free throw correction, I'm sure -- I've got a bridge to sell you.

Oh, and here's a final fun fact for Nugget Fan: Coach Philip is 49-1 in series when he's up after three games. The lesson: you get him early, or you don't get him at all.

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