Pulling a typical George Karl In The Playoffs move, the Denver Nuggets fell to the No. 6 Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry’s monster third quarter performances. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on how the Warriors were able to win without David Lee
In what will be the most competitive second round series of the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be taking on the Los Angeles Lakers as this growing rivalry continues to gain steam. Although Los Angeles has definitely shown that it can play with just about anybody when Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol show up, the Thunder should be big favorites to win this series in convincing fashion.
Los Angeles is coming fresh off a hard-fought Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets that reinvigorated life into Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Ron Artest. The game revived Gasol, Bynum and Steve Blake’s confidence as Kobe Bryant looked primarily to facilitate. A confident Laker team is a dangerous one, but Denver provided a blueprint for the Oklahoma City Thunder on how to beat LA: If Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can play physical and aggressive defense against Bynum and Gasol, they will disappear again and the Lakers will be left with just Kobe to fend off the offensively proficient Thunder. Kevin Durant started shooting the ball better at the end of the first round and Russell Westbrook played consistently well throughout the series. Just like the Nuggets, the Thunder will also have an advantage at the point guard position, as Westbrook will be able to use his speed to get by Ramon Sessions and Blake. The only difference is that Westbrook can actually finish better than Ty Lawson at the basket, meaning the Lakers will really have their work cut out for them to stop a speedy point guard’s penetration. Meanwhile, Durant is a much better scorer than Artest faced in Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, so he’ll have his work cut out for him on the defensive end. You can expect Durant and Westbrook to get their 20-30 points per game, but the X-factor, as always, will be James Harden.
When Artest elbowed Harden in the head in their last meeting, the Lakers were able to come back from a double-digit deficit at home because Harden was not on the floor. Harden has been the glue that holds the Thunder together and the voice of reason that attacks the basket when Durant and Westbrook start jacking up too many jump shots, evidenced by his complete takeover of Game 4 against the Mavs. Harden also has emerged as a quality defender and has been able to slow Kobe down a little bit in their previous meetings. But even if Harden didn’t have such a significant impact coming off the bench for OKC, the concussion he sustained at the hands of Artest would still serve as the galvanizing force that motivates this dangerous team to hit the Lakers with everything they’ve got. Oklahoma City is a tightly-knit unit and you can be guaranteed they wanted to play the Lakers just to have this chance for revenge.
The Thunder should be big favorites to win this series. Ibaka and Perkins shut down Dirk Nowitzki in a convincing sweep of the defending champion Mavs in the first round and should be able to limit Bynum and Gasol to some degree, especially if they lose motivation again. Steve Blake proved to be a dagger in Denver’s playoff hopes, but I seriously doubt he will continue to play at such a high level, especially against a more talented team like the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook should be able to put up their regular numbers and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year will do damage off the bench. But most importantly, OKC has a real reason to come out and squash LA because of Artest’s ridiculous elbow to James Harden and his ignorant comments about not apologizing or shaking his hand just a few days ago. Durant, Westbrook and Harden should come out incredibly focused and look to make a statement after being eager with anticipation to get back on the court. You combine all of that with Oklahoma City’s home-court advantage and you’re looking at pretty difficult odds for the Lakers. If LA struggled with a physical and quick team like the Denver Nuggets, they’re going to really have problems against a team with a similar DNA that has even more talent. The only concern is that OKC’s time off might result in them being rusty for an important, tone-setting Game 1, but something tells me the Thunder will rise above it and play as the superior team that they are.
Prediction: Oklahoma City over Los Angeles in 6 games
Some credit goes to George Karl and the resilient Denver Nuggets for pushing their series with the Los Angeles Lakers to a seventh game after trailing 3-1, but more credit goes to Kobe Bryant and the rest of his supporting cast after outlasting the Nuggets in Game 7 with a 96-87 victory. Pau Gasol had a breakout performance with 23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and four blocks, Andrew Bynum responded as well with 16 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks, and even Steve Blake had a monster game with 19 points after knocking down five 3-pointers, but it was Kobe Bryant that moved the Lakers into the second round.
How, you ask? He completely deferred to his teammates. After a two-day stretch of speculation and talk about how pathetic Kobe’s supporting cast had become, Bryant allowed his teammates to prove everyone wrong by passing the ball. So even though his 17-point, 8-assist performance doesn’t look impressive on paper, it was his continued commitment to giving up the ball that allowed his teammates to excel. Yes, Kobe-haters, I understand your reluctance to praise a guy for simply passing the ball to talented teammates. But with the way this series was going, it had turned into Denver vs. Kobe, and Kobe wasn’t going to win that battle. So he deserves credit for getting in his teammates’ ear and then allowing them to display their heart and commitment to winning a championship. That being said, Ron Artest’s return (I’m still not referring to him as “Metta World Peace) made a big difference on both ends of the floor. Without Artest, I’m not convinced the Lakers win Game 7. Artest made the invaluable contribution of shutting Danilo Gallinari down, who finished with only three points on 1-of-9 shooting. He also guarded Andre Miller, who had a similarly frustrating offensive night with three points on 1-of-10 shooting. But Artest’s impact didn’t stop there, as he knocked down four 3-pointers and ended up with 15 points in his first game back.
For Denver, it was yet another disappointing first round loss. Al Harrington had a breakout game with 24 points off the bench, while Ty Lawson also put up 24 in addition to six assists and five rebounds. Arron Afflalo pitched in 15 points, but other than that, Denver’s offense struggled despite balanced distribution. Gallinari and Miller were taken out of the game by Artest. Kenneth Faried had just six points to go with his 10 rebounds. McGee finished with six points as well, but grabbed 14 boards. The Lakers outplayed the Nuggets in every way necessary to get the series win in Game 7: they cut down on turnovers, they scored inside the paint and they had 14 blocks and 10 steals compared to Denver’s nine rejections and five steals. But the biggest factor was 3-point shooting. Los Angeles hit 11 3-pointers and shot just under 46 percent from downtown while Denver made seven and hit less than 27 percent of their 3-point attempts. Gasol and Bynum’s resurgent performances definitely hurt, but Blake and Artest knocking down shots from the outside gave them little chance to pull off the upset. However, the Nuggets have a very bright future with, especially if they have room to resign JaVale McGee, who had a breakout series despite falling short in Game 7. They have young and talented players like Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried and experience veterans that give them depth and defense. Look for Denver to be a tough playoff team next year if they can bring everybody back.
Looking ahead, Denver probably matched up better with the Thunder because of their depth and clever defensive strategies. The Lakers’ struggles against the Nuggets provided a blueprint for how to beat LA and you can be sure OKC made note of it. If Gasol and Bynum disappear in the second round like they did in the first, the Thunder’s overall talent will completely overwhelm the Lakers, especially considering that OKC has home-court advantage and a real reason to come out strong against LA after Artest gave James Harden a concussion just a few weeks ago. Unless Kobe, Bynum and Gasol all have a stellar series, the Thunder could run away with this one.
Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets wasted no time in showing the Lakers they meant business in Game 6, which quickly turned into a complete rout of an ill Kobe Bryant and the complacent Los Angeles Lakers. After starting the game on a 13-0 run, the Nuggets never looked back, taking care of business at home with a 113-96 victory and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in LA on Saturday.
Lawson led the Nuggets with 32 points, six assists and five rebounds, shooting 5-of-6 from downtown. Kenneth Faried had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Corey Brewer had 18 points off the bench, Danilo Gallinari finished with 12 points and seven rebounds and Andre Miller backed up his terrific Game 5 performance with a 12-point effort in Game 6. And although Arron Afflalo only had six points and JaVale McGee only had two, Timofey Mozgov not only continued his excellent defense on Andrew Bynum, but he even pitched in eight points as well. It was as close to a perfect effort as Denver can conjure up, but that’s the way it looked at the end of Game 5 too. For the Lakers, the only player really worth mentioning was Kobe Bryant, who scored 31 points while playing with a stomach virus (Quick side note: Do NOT compare this game to Michael Jordan’s Flu Game. This was against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs and his team lost by about 20. MJ’s legendary performance was in the NBA Finals against Stockton and Malone and his team won thanks to that incredible performance. The two aren’t even remotely close). Ramon Sessions was LA’s second leading scorer with 14 points. Andrew Bynum had another underwhelming night with 11 points and 16 rebounds while Pau Gasol disappeared completely with just three points and three rebounds on 1-of-10 shooting.
At the start of the playoffs, I predicted Denver would give Los Angeles all they could handle, but I picked the Lakers to win the series in six games. I said the Lakers’ size would overwhelm the Nuggets’ bigs and that stopping Kobe, Bynum and Gasol over the course of a seven game series would be too much for the balanced Nuggets. It seems as though I (and everyone else in the NBA analyst department) underestimated just how effective Denver’s depth and frontcourt defense could be; despite dropping the first two games, the Nuggets have roared back in this series and now carry all the momentum and confidence into Game 7. The Lakers will benefit from having a rocking Staples Center trying to rouse them out of their apparent apathy (everyone except Kobe, that is). They will also be getting Ron Artest back after missing the last seven games (for his ludicrous elbow on Sixth Man of the Year James Harden). But after the effort we’ve seen from this Los Angeles squad in the past few games and because Artest will likely be rusty, it’s hard to pick against the Denver Nuggets.
Kobe is the only guy in purple and yellow who looks like he wants it. Bynum has allowed himself to be taken out of the series and instead of reasserting himself with a dominant performance, he’s completely faded out of the picture. Credit Mozgov, Faried and McGee for their aggressive and physical defense on him, but Bynum was the best active center in the league coming into the playoffs, and his effort and performance since dropping a triple double in Game 1 has been absolutely disappointing. But as bad as Bynum has been, Pau Gasol has been completely appalling. Game 6 will be the one that truly reveals how absent Gasol has been, but the truth is, he hasn’t had an impact on a single game in this series. Gasol is the Lakers’ third most important player and without him scoring, the Nuggets can focus all their attention on shutting Bynum down. Gasol has phased himself out, missing easy shots and being pushed around by Denver’s motivated post players. Unless Gasol and Bynum completely turn things around in Game 7, the Lakers will become just the ninth team in NBA history to lose a series after leading 3-1. Now I’m not fully predicting Denver will win Game 7 on the road against the uber-competitive Kobe Bryant. Kobe has time to rest up and prepare for an elimination game, and you know he’ll be doing everything he can to motivate his teammates, which will make them dangerous in front of their home crowd. No doubt, the Nuggets still have their work cut out for them. But as lethal as Kobe can be, this series may be out of his control if his teammates fail to show up again. And do you know who the last team was to lose a series after leading 3-1? The Los Angeles Lakers.
Kobe Bryant knocked down five 3-pointers in the second half and dropped 43 points, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the balanced attack of the Denver Nuggets. A collective effort from a number of unsung heroes helped the Nuggets stave off a late rally from Kobe and the Lakers to give them a 102-99 victory on the road and force a Game 6 in Denver on Thursday. With the series now shifting back to Denver and the Lakers only up 3-2, the Nuggets are on the verge of making this series very interesting.
Last night’s win was probably Denver’s best in the series so far, despite the fact that Kobe nearly took it over at the end. The Nuggets completely controlled the game until Kobe started to get hot and knocked down four 3-pointers in the game’s final minutes. But even with the Staples Center going ballistic, Denver’s veterans and developing talents alike kept their composure and did what they needed to to send the series back to their home court. Andre Miller was absolutely phenomenal for Denver, leading them with 24 points and eight assists, including a few clutch baskets and free throws that kept the Nuggets on top down the stretch. JaVale McGee had another breakout performance and completely outplayed Andrew Bynum, finishing with 21 points and 14 rebounds. McGee and Kenneth Faried, who had 10 points and nine rebounds, helped limit Bynum and took care of the boards for a Denver team that was expected to be at a huge disadvantage in the paint. Arron Afflalo finally had a decent offensive outing, finishing with 19 points and five rebounds while Danilo Gallinari, who had an off shooting night, still pitched in 14 points of his own. But perhaps one of the most underrated performances of the night came from Timofey Mozgov. Although Mozgov failed to score a single point and registered only one block, his defense on Andrew Bynum was paramount. Even though none of his efforts showed up on the stat sheet, Mozgov kept Bynum from getting close to the basket and combined with Faried and McGee to completely take him out of the game.
For the Lakers, it was a pretty bad night. Other than Kobe, no one but Bynum and (surprisingly) Matt Barnes reached double digits in scoring. Bynum posted 16 points and 11 rebounds, but he looked completely frustrated and allowed Denver to take him out of his game, which became pretty evident after his purposeless shove on Kenneth Faried that led to a technical foul. But although Bynum is a big area of concern right now after being outplayed by McGee on both ends of the floor, the Lakers have even bigger problems: Ramon Sessions and Pau Gasol. Sessions was supposed to be the missing piece to the championship puzzle for LA, but he’s failed to have a significant impact so far. He hit a big 3-pointer to pull the Lakers that much closer to a comeback victory, but other than that he was pretty absent. The biggest problem in this series has been Pau Gasol though. Gasol used to be Kobe’s second-hand man and a dominant, skilled force in the paint. But now that Bynum is around, Gasol has been moved out of the paint and functions more like a facilitator. Gasol only put up nine points and 10 rebounds and has been putting up similar numbers for this entire series. Credit Denver’s post players for not allowing scoring in the paint but Gasol has got to get himself more involved on offense if the Lakers want to win.
Kobe played lights out and the Nuggets still got the win. So far, a lot of credit has to go to George Karl for developing this squad into a competitive team. They don’t have superstars, but they have veterans, developing talent and plenty of depth. The Nuggets have done what they needed to do to stay competitive in this series: they’ve prevented Bynum and Gasol from having a field day down low, they’ve utilized their advantage at the point guard position, and they’ve overwhelmed the Lakers’ starting five with balanced scoring and overall effort at every position. And even though Kobe went off in Game 5, the Nuggets won because they limited production from everyone else. Andre Miller and JaVale McGee have been huge and have to continue their high level of production to keep Denver alive. Al Harrington has struggled but all it takes is one good shooting night and the Nuggets could make this series very interesting if it goes to Game 7 in LA. And just as a side note, last night was further proof the Kobe will never go down in history as the greatest player in the NBA. Although his barrage of 3-pointers was impressive and he finished with 43 in a pretty stellar performance, his last three shots, which all could have tied the game, sounded something like this: “CLANK. CLANK. CLANK.” I don’t remember Michael Jordan missing that many shots in the playoffs with the game on the line.
Denver was poised to even the series up at two games apiece and head back to LA with a renewed sense of hope, but an unlikely hero emerged and the Lakers stole Game 4 with a 92-88 win on the road. Los Angeles now leads the series 3-1 and will look to send this balanced Nuggets team home with a win at Staples Center in Game 5 tomorrow night. With Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol all on the floor, everyone thought one of these guys would provide the dagger as the audience felt the game start to slip away from Denver. But in the end, it turned out to be none other than Steve Blake who decimated the Nuggets’ chances in the game and possibly the whole series.
Kobe led LA with 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists, Bynum had 19 points and seven rebounds and Gasol finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists. But it was Blake’s 10 points off the bench, which included the 3-pointer that put the Lakers ahead by six with 18 seconds left, that proved to be Denver’s undoing. It was Jordan Hill’s 12 points and 11 rebounds that kept the Lakers from being overwhelmed by Denver’s depth. And even though the Nuggets’ bench still outscored LA’s, the fact that the Lakers’ supporting cast even contributed gave them the upper hand.
Denver did a good job of containing Andrew Bynum again, using double teams to get the ball out of his hands. Kobe had an all-around great game, but the Nuggets were able to prevent him from going off in the scoring column by holding him to just 10-of-25 shooting. But their lack of offensive production from some of the guys who gave Denver a Game 3 victory eventually hurt them, especially when Blake and Hill started making shots. Ty Lawson, who had a stellar performance in the Nuggets’ first game at home, finished with just 11 points. Kenneth Faried had just six points and seven rebounds. JaVale McGee, who was a hero in Game 3 for guarding Bynum and still finding energy on the offensive end, could only tally eight points and four rebounds after getting tired early in the second half. Al Harrington struggled with his shot and missed a few big 3-pointers. And Arron Afflalo, who seems like he won’t show up in time for the end of the playoffs this year, could only muster six points. Danilo Gallinari finally had an efficient shooting night, leading the Nuggets with 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but he only got significant help from Andre Miller, who had 15 points off the bench.
A few key plays killed Denver down the stretch, but the Lakers earned the victory and the Nuggets didn’t have what it took to prevent a crucial Game 4 from slipping through their fingers. Gallinari getting laid out on a clean pick by Gasol led to a wide open 3-pointer for Ramon Sessions that put LA up by three, which proved to be insurmountable and was an extremely unfortunate break for the Nuggets (Gallo looked like he flopped, but Gasol did raise his shoulders and pop him in the throat. But then again, the pick was definitely clean and didn’t warrant a foul call. This debate could go on and on so we’re just going to chalk it up to a bad break for Denver/good play by the Lakers and leave it at that). Whatever the case, Denver couldn’t get the job done and will go home sooner than expected unless they somehow win Game 5 in LA against the cold-blooded killer and closer that is Kobe Bryant. This would require an inordinate amount of team chemistry, improved shooting, no production from LA’s bench and similarly stifling defense on both Kobe and Bynum. This is a tall order, but it should be worth watching if George Karl can rally his balanced team to keep this series competitive.