You had to like that win. It was a gutty win when the Lakers were outplayed most of the night. When they were out shot. You had to love that after a night where they struggled Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher made the plays at the end. You have to love Kobe Bryant. The Lakers were tough — as they have been for a while but still don’t get credit for.
Sure, there were a lot of things I didn’t like. I didn’t like that when the Nuggets were aggressive with cutting off easy post entry passes the Lakers didn’t counter (late moves across the lane, cross picks). I didn’t like that early when Gasol and Bynum did run the floor and get early position they were not rewarded with the ball. I did not like Spike Lee cheering on the Lakers. I did not like how much the Lakers ran the pick and roll instead of their standard offensive sets.
But it’s a win. And we can get into more detail of the likes and dislikes in this breakdown of the end of the game. We join the action with 3:20 left, after Phil had called a timeout to remind everyone that Melo just scored, again, and maybe they should try to stop him (it worked, he didn’t score again).
3:20, 96-92 Nuggets: The Lakers get the ball to Kobe who dribbles across the top of the key to his right and since Nene is the closest defender five feet off him Kobe rises up and buries the 21 footer. Not a sequence Denver will remember fondly, no real pick and nobody on Kobe? That can’t be the defensive game plan.
3:12, 96-94 Nuggets: Billups spends the first 10 seconds of the clock directing traffic, then from five feet beyond the three point line goes away from the high pick. Odom switches nicely and follows him in, forcing Billups to go deep under the basket then pass baseline to Nene who drives into the middle of the lane and tries a little runner that Pau Gasol blocks.
Gasol is taking heat in some quarters for his performance, but: 1) the Lakers did a poor job of getting him the ball in good position (credit to the aggressive Nuggets defense here as well); 2) He made the plays when it mattered. He played like a veteran.
Back to the game. Kobe starts the run-out off Gasol’s block and outlet, but Denver gets back, then traps him, so he does a little jump pass to Ariza. Then the Lakers putz around with the ball for a few seconds, I’m not sure what else to call it, before Bryant decides to not wait for the screen and just take his man off the dribble. He was able to do that in this game, something that did not happen last series. Denver lets him go right (Battier was great at forcing him left) and by the time he gets to the elbow three Nuggets are there to greet him, Kobe passes to Fisher all alone in the corner, so alone that he can set his feet (and, frankly, run out to the concession stand, buy a water and get back) and he buries the three. Staples erupts.
2:29, 97-96 Lakers: Billups brings it up again, and again 10 seconds are off the shot clock by the time they start to run their half-court set. With all those athletes shouldn’t they push the ball more? Anyway Billups can’t find a post pass to Melo he likes so he picks up his dribble and gets hounded by Kobe. But now Melo realized hc can’t get the ball as deep as he’s like so he gives up position for possession. Kobe comes off the Billups to double in the post, but Melo had turned his back to him, faced up and wants to drive. Gasol anticipates, gets over and draws the charge. Another good defensive set from Gasol late.
Now Fisher brings it up for LA and early in the clock he and Kobe cross and Fisher hands the ball to Bryant who drives left this time, pulls up at the left elbow, then feeds Gasol with a pretty bounce pass. That was a good entry past to the post by the Lakers, you can count those on one hand in that game by the Lakers.
Gasol does what Lakers fans had wanted him to do and backs K-Mart down into the paint and while he doesn’t make the shot he draws the foul. We need to see more of this next game. The problem is he misses both free throws.
1:53, 97-96 Lakers: Billups has gone into attack mode. He pushes the ball up but sees nothing, still he starts probing early. Nene comes out and sets the screen, but when Billups tries to use it Gasol shows out well and takes away the move. So Billups shoots the contested three with Gasol right there. Nothing but net. Credit Billups for playing some of his best basketball in years.
1:38, 99-97 Nuggets. The ball eventually works to Kobe in the right corner, but he has no shot, instead he dribbles out using a pick set by Gasol but still there is nothing there so it is out to Fisher with the ball and an reset. But that doesn’t reset the shot clock so Fisher tries to draw the foul with an ugly looking three that misses badly.
Fortunately Gasol is there for the offensive board. Those were absolutely the key to the game — the Lakers had 17 offensive rebounds and 22 second chance points, That kept tem in it despite the Lakers bad shooting night and not getting to the line. It got them the win. Gasol got fouled and made his free throws.
99-99, 1:13 left: Again Billups is looking and probing, and doing so with a sense of urgency, eventually he goes around a high pick from the Birdman, and both Laker defenders focus on Chauncey. Birdman does a little delayed roll to the hoop and gets the pass as he cuts. Odom rotates over early and is a statue with its arms up that Birdman has to drive into and shoot over, and he misses. Letting Birdman shoot anything but a putback dunk is good for the Lakers.
In the ensuing scramble there is a jump ball called between Birdman and Odom. Birdman wins the tip but tries to send it up near the basket, a play no other Nuggets seemed to be in on, so Gasol grabs it.
Kobe has the ball on the Lakers end and he is probing, He gets a high screen from Gasol but noting is there. The Lakers ran entirely too much pick and roll in this game – because of their athletic and quick bigs Denver defends this very well, their can show out and recover. I’d like to see more just straight triangle run against Denver.
Eventually Kobe goes isolation and drives right and pulls up for the 17-footer that misses but Pau is underneath fighting for the offensive board and while he doesn’t get it he forces Billups to tap it out of bounds, it remains Lakers ball. Timeout to set up a play, not to mention see another commercial from that amazingly unfunny Mikes Hard Lemonade campaign.
The Lakers inbound to Kobe who again starts to drive sweeping to his right across the top of the key, but this time K-Mart joins to double Kobe, then makes an amazingly foolish reach-in foul. Just a terrible foul — not only is Denver is in the penalty (and Kobe goes to the line and sinks two) but you essentially give the Lakers the two-for-one they wanted. We said before the game that keeping the Lakers off the line was key, and the Nuggets did a good job of that most of the night. But this was a big exception.
:30, 101-99 Lakers. Out of a timeout Anthony Carter is inbounding the ball at halfcourt, and as Phil has done all year he puts the very tall Odom on the inbounder. On the far side away from the ball, Billups sets a screen then surprises Ariza by racing straight out high rather than running underneath the basket and into the corner (clearly the corner is the preferred spot because Ariza played him to go there, then on the next inbounds play, the one where Billups hits the three after stepping out of bounds, he did go to the corner to get the ball).
As soon as Billups bolts toward halfcourt Ariza just starts to sprint to recover. But from Anthony Carter’s perspective Billups both looks wide open and he has to get the ball over Odom, so he lofts it. Ariza never quits and gets the steal. Another Laker with a bad game who made a big play late.
Also, credit Ariza and the Lakers here for not just taking the breakaway dunk, but pulling up and running time off the clock. It was the smart play. As was getting the ball to Kobe and letting him iso Anthony Carter. Kobe is fouled, hits the free throws and the rest is history.
It will be interesting to see how this Denver team responds. Some teams will lost a game they feel they should have won and just pack it in the next game until they get back home. Others will think this validates they can win, just with some smarter plays. I know how Billups will respond, but will his teammates follow?
Because the Lakers certainly can play better.