Seven Games Of Intrigue

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Before the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets played game 1 at Staples’ Center last Sunday in L.A., my thoughts were firmly fixed on Derrick Rose, and his tragic injury at the outset of Chicago’s series versus the Sixers. There was something about the prospect of the series that had my attention wandering elsewhere. To the Spurs, for instance, and the way those boys down in San Antonio have avoided falling off, and are entering the Playoffs as legitimate contenders. In some ways, the Celtics are quite similar. They haven’t shown quite the same primacy or domination through the regular season, but they’ve still got their stars itching to run away from the Hawks and on to the next challenge. Or, to go another direction, I could comment at length on the blinding lustre of either the Heat or the Thunder. Hell, I could have even talked about those gutsy Pacers, a personal favourite team of mine through the season.

Going into the Nuggets/Lakers series, it was hard to believe that anything would make the Western Conference’s 3vs6 match-up particularly spectacular. The Lakers, while no longer able to strike fear into the hearts of all comers, are still a solid squad from the inside out.

Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are a potent one-two punch at the centre and power forward spots, Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake are providing stability and a little scoring at the point, Matt Barnes is nasty and mean, and Kobe might be the greatest player of all time. Not to mention the fact that the core of the group has been to the finals before, and won, and that Kobe is looking for his sixth championship.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were running with a rag tag bunch, and while they’ve made it work with impressive success over the course of the regular season, it seemed hard to believe that they could stand a proper chance against the Lakers. Rather than have any single guy with the talent of a Kobe or a Pau, they’ve got a bunch of players with specific areas of expertise.

Andre Miller, for example, brings legendary stability. Danilo Gallinari can score (sometimes). Arron Afflalo can defend. Kenneth Faried does terrible things to the rim. Javale McGee blocks shots and provides blooper footage. Chris Andersen offers easy punchlines for out-of-ideas basketball writers. Ty Lawson can create something from nothing and score in the paint despite having to stand on his tiptoes to reach 6 feet. Rudy Fernandez can speak Spanish.

The series, I think it’s safe to say, seemed like a mismatch. The Lakers would win, not without a significant battle from the scrappy Nuggets, but certainly in less than seven games. Not much drama would ensue, and fans would patiently wait for a more intriguing second round match-up to materialize.

But there we were, six games in and with the deciding game seven set in L.A.. Drama abounded. While the Spurs, Thunder, Pacers, and Heat have all managed to thus far avoid much intrigue, the Nuggets and Lakers were pulling the spotlights.

Game one, although perhaps the series least interesting, was a blowout Laker victory that seemed to confirm suspicions of pending predictability. Still, it managed to feature an absolutely stunning triple double from Andrew Bynum, which included an NBA playoff record-tying ten blocks. TEN!! His performance saved the game from being completely forgetful and inserted it permanently into the record books.

Game two, another Lakers victory, featured a patented massive showing from Kobe (38 points), who got some valiant assistance from Bynum (27 points), and from Pau, who posted 13 points and 10 boards. With such impressive numbers coming from the Lakers’ three most important pieces, one would assume that another runaway victory was in the cards. But rather than turn tail and run back to the mountains, Denver contested every one of the Lakers’ 104 points, and ended up losing by only four, despite unremarkable performances by basically everyone besides Ty Lawson.

And then, in game three, the series really took off.

Clearly happy to be back home, the Nuggets exploded out of the gates to a sizable early lead (41-17 at one point), and rode that momentum to the final horn. Javale McGee and Kenneth Faried were particularly potent for the home team, using their mutual freakish athleticism to grab 15 rebounds each, while Lawson continued to put the ball in the basket, racking up 25 points.

Games four and five continued the series’ seesawing trend, with the Lakers and Nuggets stealing a road game each. The biggest highlight of game four came off the hot shooting fingers of Steve Blake, who nailed an absolute dagger in the final 20 seconds to put the Lakers up for good in a fiercely contested contest. Then, back in LA, Kobe found his range again in game five, pouring in a heavy 43 points which were no match for Javale McGee (I’m serious) and his unprecedented 21 points and 14 rebounds.

The series’ penultimate game, which took place in Denver on Thursday night, confirmed the Nuggets as legitimate threats to Lakers’ title hopes. Back in the thin air of their high altitude home, the Nuggets simply outran and out-hustled L.A. Timofey Mozgov was winning races down the floor, Bynum was having his shots blocked, Lawson was hitting open threes in transition as the Lakers scrambled to get back on defence.

The boys wearing white looked fresh, fit, and like they were having fun. The Lakers, meanwhile, seemed to be falling to pieces. Kobe, who was afflicted throughout the game by a stomach virus, shot the ball well, but looked tired and uncomfortable on the floor. Bynum and Gasol appeared lackadaisical, with Pau in particular posting a miserable three points and three rebounds. The game was, truth be told, a write off, as a Nuggets victory seeming to be in the cards from the opening tip.

So with the final, deadly game seven looming, who had the advantage? The easy answer, of course, was the Nuggets. With young guns like Farried, McGee, Gallinari, and Lawson playing key roles in all three of their victories to date, they looked to run the older Lakers off of their own court. They were also carrying 100% of the momentum at this point, and looked to be really gelling as a team. On the other hand, the Lakers had a wealth of playoff experience at their disposal, and the pressures of a game seven didn’t burden them as heavily as it does the more inexperienced Nuggets. Plus they got an emotional lift from those wild and loud Lakers’ fans.

The Lakers found a way past their admirably resilient first round foes, but one must ask how this long, tough series might affect their prospects of a deep playoff run. With both the first-seeded Spurs and second-seeded Thunder already advancing in four game sweeps, the third-seeded Lakers, if victorious, are now up against Oklahoma. Considering the athleticism, youth, and time off at the Thunder’s disposal, a lengthy battle against Denver does not bode well for the Lakers.

 

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