If this game could be explained in two words they would be the ones that are in the title of this post: missed opportunity. On a night where Kobe or Bynum didn’t play, the Lakers still had a lead in the final five minutes and couldn’t close out the game. Instead, Denver seized control of the contest and held on in the final moments to secure a win and take the season series over the Lakers three games to one. They earned their 52nd win of the season and made the Lakers wait (at least) one more night to clinch the #1 seed in the Western Conference. Like I said, missed opportunities.
This game was defined by the hot shooting of Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith, the Lakers grit and fight in the second half, and a lack of execution in the closing minutes by the Lakers.
First, Carmelo and Smith were simply terrors on offense. After having a terrible outing against the Lakers in these teams’ last match up, Carmelo showed that he can not be easily slowed in two consecutive match ups with Artest. He made jumper after jumper and did so from all over the court. He may only be shooting 30% on three point attempts this season, but tonight that stat didn’t matter. ‘Melo hit 3-5 from deep and 10-20 from everywhere to score 31 points on the evening. He also limited his turnovers this time around and only had one miscue after having eight in the last game vs. LA. Just a very good night from Anthony. As for Smith, he is quickly joining the ranks of other players that can be defined as Lakers’ killers. No, he’s not as consistent as other players that have his all around game and talent level, but when his shot is on it makes his lack of offensive discipline irrelevant as he just buries shot after shot. Smith made 10 of his 19 attempts from the field (including 5-11 from three point range) for 26 points on the evening. He had 16 points in the second quarter alone. Most of his threes barely moved the net as they went through the hoop and he hit several shots that either extended Denver’s early lead or kept them close when the Lakers went on their second half run. And when he wasn’t bombing away from deep, he was attacking the rim and hitting a variety of pull up jumpers and floaters that befuddled help defenders. Just as with ‘Melo, this was a fantastic offensive performance from Smith.
But the Lakers would not fold in the face of Smith and ‘Melo’s offensive explosions. After trailing by 10 at the half and by as many as 15 in the third quarter, the Lakers battled back with the type of effort that has been absent in too many of their recent losses. The Lakers defended, rebounded and then took the ball the other way and hit shots. It wasn’t always pretty and, in fact, at one point I compared the Lakers run to slop shots in billiards (with all the rattled home shots and broken plays that ended up leading to a bucket), but they made the plays they needed to in order to systematically cut the Nuggets’ lead down and eventually take a lead of their own. Nearly every Laker got in the act, too. Shannon and Sasha hit threes. Odom grabbed offensive rebounds and got a put back. Fisher hit a runner. Gasol hit mid range jumpers and earned trips to the foul line. Everything was going right for the Lakers. Until it wasn’t.
Because with a bit less than 5 minutes to go in the game, Carmelo once again showed why he’s one of the elite scorers in the entire league. Anthony poured in 7 straight Nuggets points, culminating in a game tying three pointer with only two minutes and forty seconds to play. Following that basket, the Lakers would take the lead behind two Derek Fisher FT’s, but it would be their last of the game. On their next offensive possession Smith would hit a baseline jumper to tie the game and then the breakdowns for the Lakers began. On the ensuing Lakers possession, they’d run down the shot clock and earn a 24 second violation after Nene poked away a pass to Gasol. Then, on a Gasol post up, Nene would again get his hands on the ball and force a turnover and two Nugget free throws. After Fisher earned another trip to the foul line and sank the corresponding FT’s on the next possesion, the Lakers trailed by one point and only needed one stop in order to get the ball back and have a chance to win. And when Smith drove the ball, Shannon made a superb defensive play to block the shot from behind but threw the ball away when he tried to save the ball to Fisher. One more FT by Denver after the subsequent foul meant that the Lakers still had one more chance to win. But it turned into one last ill fated play where the execution went awry. With 12.7 seconds left and Phil deciding against a time out, Fisher dribbled the ball up court, ran a P&R with Odom, forced Denver to switch, but then couldn’t get the ball into Odom in the post on Billups. Instead, with only a second remaining, Fisher fired up a desperation three that got blocked by ‘Melo. Ball game.
So, here we are. For the fourth time in five games the Lakers lost. But unlike those other games, I don’t feel the same sense of anger or frustration that stems from blowouts where poor play is out done by even poorer urgency to win. Tonight, against the Nuggets, the Lakers fought and came up short. They had a very good chance to win but were out executed down the stretch by the team that had the best player on the floor making crucial buckets to win the game. And while watching the other team do the things that you wish the Lakers would is frustrating, the overall feeling that I get from this game is that the Lakers are getting closer. Closer to playing well, closer to being ready for the playoffs, closer to having the necessary mindset that they’ll need to defend their title. And sure tonight’s game was tough, but really it was just a missed opportunity. I’m starting to feel more confident that when these chances become available in the playoffs, it will be the Lakers that are making the winning plays.