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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lakers Play with Pride and Heart, Win Game 7 (5.12.12)

If you just looked at the box score, you wouldn't understand what happened Saturday. You wouldn't understand how much effort both teams put into the game. You wouldn't understand the frantic nature of every loose ball. You wouldn't understand the nuances of the game, the deflected passes, the extra effort on the glass, the momentum swinging 3's. You just wouldn't.

The stats just don't provide justice to the best effort the Lakers have shown in nearly two years. Let me run off those stats.

I'll start with Kobe. Kobe went 7-16, 2-2 from deep, for 17 points, 1 rebound, 8 assists, 1 block, and 3 turnovers. Not that great of a line, right? Upon closer examination, this game highlighted the greatest amount of trust Kobe has shown with this team. There are only four guys on the Lakers who were a part of that title in '10, Kobe, Pau, Drew, Metta, that's it. Kobe put his full trust into his teammates and played facilitator all night. George Karl made sure that Denver doubled Kobe on almost every single touch. Kobe played possum, let the double come, surveyed the floor, and hit the open man. Kobe only registered 8 assists, but he was responsible for about 20 buckets. Kobe racked up numerous hockey assists, sending the pass before the assist. Kobe would kick out, the defense would rush that guy, and that guy would hit the open man on the weak side for the open jumper. Once the game got close, too close, in the fourth quarter, I'm sure Denver figured Kobe would start jacking up shots. Well, he didn't. He kept passing and the guys kept delivering, notably Steve Blake. The one time the Nuggets didn't double. Kobe drilled a game sealing 3 from the near wing with under a minute to play. Kobe played his finest facilitating game that I can recall since his playoff days in the early 2000's when he would feed Shaq. Impressive.

Then there's Metta World Peace. Metta's impact upon returning to the lineup from suspension was immeasurable. Metta went 5-15, 4-11 from deep, for 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 turnover. Not exactly the greatest offensive performance, but once again, his game needs further examination. Metta jacked up 3's, and this was a good thing. He wasn't exactly spot on, but Metta was a threat. I loved Ebanks and his contributions as a young player filling in for Metta, but whenever Ebanks played, the Nuggets could sink into the paint. Ebanks wouldn't shoot the open 3, so the Nuggets didn't worry about having to close out. The Nuggets packed the paint, doubled Bynum on and off the ball, waited for Ebanks to kick it to someone else, and then recovered to the threats. When Ebanks was out, Barnes would shoot the 3, but Barnes was atrocious. Barnes entered game seven with 12.5% shooting from deep, as he shot a miserable 3-24. With Barnes ice cold, and Ebanks a non threat from the perimeter, the Nuggets were able to double every single possession from the small forward position. The double man would usually be Gallinari, and Gallo's length was a problem on the double for Bynum. Bynum just couldn't get going. With the return of Metta, the floor opened up. Metta became a threat, and the lane opened up. Even more impressive was Metta's defensive play. Metta was spectacular. He was all over the court. He deflected numerous passes, he closed out hard, he forced contested jumpers, he stripped the ball, he got steals, he got blocks, he was a frantic but effective whirlwind on the defensive end.

Now onto the bigs. Andrew Bynum went 4-15 for 16 points, 18 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 6 blocks, and 1 turnover. Once again, those offensive numbers don't look great. However, Bynum was great on the offensive glass. Bynum corralled 9 offensive rebounds. He gave the Lakers numerous second chances. Bynum was also aggressive and forced numerous trips to the line, sinking 8-11 free throws. Although he didn't shoot efficiently, Bynum's performance was outstanding. Then there was his defense. In game six, Bynum was burned on the pick and roll all game. In game seven, Bynum put forth the effort and reaped the rewards. Bynum hedged hard on picks. Bynum contested jumpers after he was switched on the smalls. Bynum blocked 6 shots in the lane. Bynum altered another 5 shots in the lane. Bynum's "fake hustle" from game six was nowhere to be seen, game seven was all heart, all effort, true hustle.

Last but not least, Pau Gasol. Following his pathetic 1-10 for 3 points and 3 rebounds in game six, Pau was on the hot seat. During last year's postseason run, Pau received the largest amount of blame for his passive play against the Mavericks. Many believed that Pau's no show cost the Lakers the series, and so did the front office. They tried to trade him, but as we all know, David Stern stepped in and vetoed the trade for Chris Paul. Coming into game seven, Pau was averaging 11.1 points per game on 41% shooting, far below his season average of 17.4 on 50% shooting. Pau's listlessness needed to disappear, and it did. Pau opened the game with a tip in for the first LA bucket. This tip would foreshadow Pau's awesome night. Pau finished 9-19 for 23 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 4 blocks, and 1 turnover. Pau was phenomenal. His most impressive play featured six tips on the offensive glass before he finally got the ball to drop. Six tips! Pau kept missing the tip, but he kept battling, and he finally got the ball to drop. His 11 offensive rebounds were all heart. Pau showed why he is the most skilled big man in the NBA. An aggressive Pau Gasol is a top ten NBA player. Pau's performance highlights the full potential of the Lakers. When your third best player is a beast and can be the best player on the floor any given night, your team is pretty damn good. Pau just extended his stay in LA. If Pau had flamed out, he would surely have been traded this summer. I hope he plays with that fire for the rest of the playoffs.

The most essential contribution may have come from Steve Blake. Blake went 7-11, 5-6 from deep, for 19 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. Blake's deep shooting was exceptional. If Blake had bricked those 3's, who knows if Kobe would have kept passing out of the double team. Kobe routinely set up Blake for open 3's and Blake knocked them down. His spot on shooting allowed the Lakers to punish the Nuggets for sinking the paint and doubling on almost every possession. Blake was clutch. With Sessions struggling in the biggest game of his life, Blake came in and gave 30 amazing minutes. His calm demeanor, cold stone shooting, and competitive fire was essential to the victory. Steve Blake is seeming to find his inner Fisher. Big shots in big spots, and he has the trust of Kobe, something that cannot be overlooked. Kobe seems willing to hit Blake in any moment. Kobe knows that Blake has the guts to take the biggest shot of the game, especially after that game four dagger.

Let's get to the game. As Metta fired up an open shot from the near corner 3, Pau established great position as the ball went up. The ball bounced off the rim and Pau sealed Faried on his back and went up for the clean tip in. This was the first LA bucket, what a great start. The next possession, Kobe brought the ball up the far side and got to the far wing. Kobe looked to hit Bynum on the far block, but Mozgov was fronting Bynum. Kobe swung the ball to Pau at the top of the key, and Pau sent the lob over the top. Bynum gathered it at the far block, came down, and went up for the dunk. Bynum followed this by altering Gallo's drive in the lane. Bynum rotated well, forced Gallo into a floater, and Gallo air balled it. Then Sessions drove and kicked to an open Pau at the far mid wing. Pau sank the open 15ft jumper. Two defensive possessions later, Bynum showed just how engaged he was right off the bat. Lawson stood at the far wing and ran the pick and roll with Mozgov. Lawson used the pick to go left and get to the far mid wing. Bynum stepped out and contested the jumper. Lawson sank it, but Bynum's effort was much more impressive than what he did in games five and six. In those games, Bynum would sag off and let Lawson freely shoot any jumper he wanted. Kobe followed with his signature reverse pivot fadeaway. Kobe caught it at the near elbow, faced up, took one dribble to the middle, and revert spun for the turnaround fade. Kobe pumped, Afflalo didn't bite, so Kobe leaned to his left and hit the fading 13ft jumper. Two minutes later, Pau fed Bynum an easy layup at the rim following a pick and roll with Metta. Pau followed that with a beautiful turnaround jumper that solidified his promise of a big night.  Then Metta hit his first 3 of the night. Metta held the ball at the far wing 3, and he looked to hit Kobe on the curl to the far mid wing. Gallo played off Metta, opting to sag and prevent the entry to Kobe, so Metta fired up the 3 and sank it. Two minutes later, Blake checked in and hit his first 3 of the night. Bynum was doubled at the far block, so he kicked it to Blake at the far wing 3 with 3 seconds on the shot clock. Blake went up without hesitation and drilled the 3. Bynum followed that with a great block in the lane on McGee. Then Bynum and Kobe closed out the quarter. Andre Miller ran the high pick and roll with McGee. Miller attacked right, Bynum stayed with him and swatted the layup at the rim with 7.6 on the clock. Kobe followed that up by blocking Al Harrington's jumper at the far mid wing, allowing the Lakers to close the quarter up 25-24.

Although the Nuggets stayed even with the Lakers, it was evident that Pau and Bynum were engaged, and the defense came to play. Kobe went 2-4 for 4 points, 1 assist, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. Bynum went 2-4 for 5 points, 1 rebound (offensive), 1 assist, and 3 blocks. Pau went 2-4 for 6 points, 3 rebounds (1 offensive), and 2 assists. Ty Lawson had a great opening quarter, going 4-5, 1-1 from deep, for 9 points, and 2 assists. Lawson was held in check, but he had a five minute stretch where he scored all of his points.

The second quarter featured more Pau, and Kobe. Blake opened the quarter hot. He sank the first two shots of the quarter, nailing a long 21ft jumper from the far mid wing, and swishing a far corner 3. Barnes started the second, but after a quick turnover he was yanked and Kobe checked back in earlier than usual, at the 9:12 mark. Kobe immediately hounded Miller after checking in. Kobe forced Miller to air ball a shot in the lane. Kobe then fed Pau an easy dunk in transition. Kobe followed that with another feed to Pau. Kobe brought the ball up the far side, got to the far wing, crossed through his legs from left to right, elevated at the far mid wing, and hit Pau in the lane for the open layup. Everyone turned and watched Kobe as he elevated, allowing him to dish it to Pau for the and one layup. Pau hit the free throw. The next possession, Kobe got to the near wing, used a pick from Pau to attack middle, elevated, noticed Lawson doubling as he elevated, and hit the open Blake at the far corner 3, swish. Following Blake's 3, the Lakers didn't score for 4 minutes. Kobe solved that with a near wing 3 in rhythm after Pau hit him from the top of the key. Pau closed the quarter with a tip in. Sessions pushed the ball with 7 seconds left in the half. Sessions hit Bynum at the near block, and Bynum turned baseline to shoot the turnaround jumper. Bynum missed, and Pau followed with a tip in at the far block just before the buzzer went off.

The Lakers entered the half up 48-42. Kobe went 1-4 for 3 points, 1 rebound, and 3 assists. Bynum went 1-5 for 3 points and 5 rebounds (3 offensive). Pau went 3-6 for 7 points, 4 rebounds (2 offensive), 3 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal.

The third quarter featured huge runs by both teams. The Lakers got the lead up to 16, but the Nuggets finished the quarter only down by 1. Kobe started off hot, but Ty Lawson stole the show and exploded in the third.

Kobe started off the quarter with a 9ft jumper in the lane. Then Kobe got an easy layup in transition as Sessions stole the ball, went coast to coast, and dumped the ball off after he drew the defender. Kobe followed that with an assist to Metta. Kobe used a pick at the near top 3. Kobe attacked to the near mid wing, elevated, and kicked it to the open MWP at the far wing 3, swish. Denver immediately took a timeout as the score swelled, 55-45. Pau finished an offensive rebound with a turnaround jumper in the lane, and Kobe set up Metta with the hockey assist. Kobe was doubled at the far wing, at about 35 feet. Kobe hit Pau at the far mid wing, and Pau swung it to the wide open MWP in the near corner 3, swish. The next possession, Kobe pulled off a beautiful left handed finger roll. Kobe brought the ball up the far side and got to the far wing. Kobe avoided a pick from Pau, attacked left, ball faked a pass to the far corner in order to freeze the help man, and finished with a lefty finger roll over McGee. The play was breathtaking and it put the Lakers up 62-46.

Then Ty Lawson took over. Following a Kobe turnover, Lawson finished a dunk in transition. Then Al Harrington pulled the chair on Pau, and Pau traveled as he stumbled backwards. Lawson came down, got Bynum to switch on him at the near side 3, and blew by Bynum baseline to finish a reverse at the far side. Then Blake missed a jumper, and Lawson finished the layup in transition out in front of everyone. Following a Metta missed free throw, Miller pushed up the far side, probed into the lane, and hit Lawson for a near side 3, swish. However, this play is notable for the how Lawson got open.  JaVale McGee absolutely pummeled Blake in transition, running him over, and setting up Lawson for the wide open shot. No foul was called. Kobe set up Blake for another open jumper swish, but Lawson followed with a floater in the lane, and one. Lawson missed the free throw, but the deficit dropped to just five, 67-62 with 2:41 to go. The next possession, Kobe set up Metta for a wide open 3 from the top. Metta missed, but the Lakers did a great job of getting back in transition, and this time the refs made a call. As Miller pushed up the far side, Al Harrington streaked down the middle. Harrington didn't notice Blake until it was too late, and he crushed him, plowing through him at the free throw line. It was the same exact play that happened with McGee, but this time the refs called it. Following a Hill miss in the lane, Lawson pushed up the near side, attacked the rim at full speed, and finished the layup in transition. Then Al Harrington made two free throws to tie the game up at 68. Kobe followed with some free throws. He nearly air balled the first one, as he put a lot of arc on the shot, and it came up short, barely touching the front of the rim. Kobe sank the second one, and the Lakers closed the quarter up 69-68.

Kobe went 3-6 for 7 points, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Pau went 1-1 for 2 points, 2 rebounds (1 offensive) 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Bynum went 0-2 for 1 point, 5 rebounds (2 offensive), 1 block, and 1 steal. Lawson was great, he went 6-7, 1-1 from deep, for 13 points, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers.

With twelve minutes left in the season, both teams played scrappy ball and gave their all. However, one thing was apparent, the Nuggets don't have a star player. The Nuggets have a great team. They have guys who can all go off, especially Lawson and Gallinari, but they don't have a proven closer. The fact that they went to Al Harrington as their go to guy speaks volumes. Harrington is a volatile offensive weapon, sometimes he's hot, sometimes he's not.

Following a reverse layup from Miller, Harrington hit his only 3 of the quarter in semi transition, making the score 69-73, Nuggets lead. Mike Brown immediately called timeout in order to stop Denver's 20 point swing. Following the timeout, Blake drove from the near corner into the lane. Blake kicked out to an open Metta at the near top 3, swish. Kobe followed with some impressive defense on Lawson. Lawson attacked from the near wing into the middle, but Kobe bodied him up the entire time. As he got in the lane, Lawson had nowhere to go, Kobe altered his shot, and Lawson air balled an ugly heave. Kobe came down, dribbled from the near wing to the top 3, passed out of the double, and Blake hit the open 3 from the far wing, giving the Lakers a 75-73 lead.

The next 40 seconds of basketball were wild. Brewer drove from the near corner into the lane. Pau swatted the layup and a mad scramble for the ball ensued. No one could control the ball, players kept getting their hands on it and tipping it. The ball finally bounced out to Lawson at the near wing 3. Lawson shot the 3 to beat the clock, but he missed. Blake took the outlet, pushed up the far side, and had a two-on-one advantage with Kobe. Blake hit Kobe, Kobe sent it back, and instead of finishing the layup, Blake decided to throw an ill-advised lob. JaVale McGee made a great hustle play and got back in time to spike the lob away. Lawson gathered the ball, pushed up the far side, hit Miller at the far wing, and Miller hit Harrington streaking down the middle for a layup, tie game.

Those 40 seconds were crazy, but nothing can top this play. Following a pick and roll switch, Pau played some great defense and forced Lawson to kick the ball out to Miller with the shot clock running down. Miller caught the ball at the near wing, about 30ft from the basket, and fired up an air ball. The Lakers came down, Kobe ran an iso from the top of the key, and Kobe missed a jumper at the far elbow. Bynum went up and missed the tip, then Pau crashed in and tipped the ball, not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times. Pau tipped the ball six straight times until the damn thing fell through the net. It was incredible. He just kept going after it. The official stat sheet says that Pau only got four offensive rebounds on the possession, but it should be six. Pau was fired up following his maximum effort, and he put LA up 3 midway through the fourth. Andre Miller followed with an and one to tie the game. The next possession, Bynum missed a baseline righty hook, and Pau followed it with another tip right down the middle of the lane. Fortunately, it only took one try this time.

Following Pau's phenomenal plays, the momentum swung to LA. Andre Miller attacked from the far wing to the far corner, but Metta was all over him. Metta blocked his fading shot in the corner and the Lakers set up an iso for Kobe at the near mid wing. Kobe backed down to the near block, noticed Ty Lawson coming to double on his backside, turned middle, and hit the wide open Blake in the far corner. Blake swished the huge 3. The next trip down, Pau and Bynum both blocked shots in the lane. Following Bynum's block, Metta ran down the ball and dove for it at the sideline. Metta didn't get it, but the shot clock only had 0.4 on it. The Nuggets inbounded on the near side. They sent a lob to McGee at the rim. Bynum jumped early, and McGee almost threw down a sick one handed dunk. McGee barely missed, Faried followed for the tip dunk, but the ball went in and out. McGee gathered the offensive rebound at the far block, but Metta stripped him and the ball went out. The Nuggets reset, and Lawson ran a high pick and roll with McGee at the far top 3. Pau switched onto Lawson and he blocked Lawson's jumper from the near top 3. Lawson recovered the ball, drove the lane, and kicked out to the open Afflalo at the far side 3. Afflalo bricked it, but Faried ran down the offensive rebound at the near sideline. Faried got the ball, pivoted to face the basket, and as he began to attack middle, his push off foot stepped out of bounds, turnover. The Lakers could not capitalize, but Metta stripped Gallinari in the lane on the following possession for his umpteenth great defensive play. Kobe fed Pau after being doubled, and Pau got fouled and sank the free throws, putting the Lakers up 85-75. Al Harrington followed with a Jordanesque jumper from the near elbow. Harrington stood at the near wing, drove right to the near elbow, and crossed over from right to left. Harrington sent Pau flying with a nice push off with his off hand as he executed the crossover. Harrington stopped on a dime and hit the 17ft jumper. His shot was exactly like MJ's last shot for the Bulls, except it didn't come from the top. Harrington's jumper cut the deficit to just five points. The next possession was probably the play of the game. Pau passed up an open jumper and instead backed down to the far block. Pau turned baseline and shot the turnaround jumper. Pau missed and the ball bounced to the near side. Although boxed out by McGee, Bynum was able to reach his arm up over McGee and get a hand on the ball. Bynum tipped the ball in over McGee at the near block and gave LA a nice 7 point cushion with 2:38 to go.

Following some bricks from Al Harrington from deep, Afflalo gathered the third offensive rebound of the possession. However, Afflalo stepped out of bounds as he gathered the ball under the backboard. The Lakers came down and utilized some great ball movement to get Bynum a trip to the line. Kobe used an iso from the near mid wing to back down to the mid block. Kobe kicked it to Metta at the far top 3, but Metta passed up the open shot and hit Blake at the far corner. Blake pumped to get the fly by, took a dribble to his right, and elevated. McGee rotated and rushed out to Blake, so Blake dumped the ball off to Bynum at the far block. Bynum took a playoff foul from Miller and he sank the free throws, 89-80. McGee followed with a nice attack to the rim for a foul, and he made one free throw. Kobe took a double, hit Metta at the far wing 3, but Metta missed. Lawson pushed the ball and hit Afflalo at the near wing 3, swish, 89-84 just like that.

Then Kobe highlighted the luxury of having a closer. With a minute left in the game and Denver on a mini run, Kobe sealed the deal. Blake hit Kobe at the near wing with 7 on the shot clock. Kobe faced up, rocked right twice, and hit the 3 in Afflalo's face, splash. The shot was epic. Kobe was crowded so well, that he didn't even land right. He fell to the ground, got up, and low-fived the court side fans, notably Justin Timberlake. Justin gave Kobe a nice pat on the butt and Kobe ran back down the court as the crowd erupted. Al Harrington followed with a concession layup, making the score 94-86. Pau hit two free throws, then contested a 3 by Lawson that bricked. Miller got the offensive rebound and hit Harrington at the near wing 3, brick. Afflalo gathered the offensive board, attacked middle, and had his shot altered by Bynum for an ugly heave that got nowhere close. Bynum sank two free throws to put the final stamp on the game. The Lakers won 96-87.

Kobe went 1-2, 1-1 from deep, for 3 points and 2 assists. Pau went 2-8 for 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Pau had 5 missed tips and 7 offensive rebounds. His activity on the glass was amazing. Bynum went 1-4 for 7 points, 7 rebounds (3 offensive), and 2 blocks. Al Harrington went 5-10, 1-6 from deep, for 11 points. The Lakers attacked the rim, the Nuggets fired off 3's.

In the end, it came down to who could control the paint. Following game one I wrote, "You can't teach size." I attended that game, and it was clear, the Lakers were too big for Denver in the paint. George Karl admirably got his bigs to perform well throughout the rest of the series, especially JaVale McGee, but they were no match for the size and skill of Bynum and Gasol. In game seven, Bynum and Pau absolutely dominated the paint. They gobbled up boards, blocked shots, altered shots, rotated from weak to strong side, and just did everything that you can ask a big man to do. This is why Kobe Bryant feels that this team is a championship contender. When Drew and Pau come to play, the Lakers are formidable. Unfortunately, it took a do or die situation to get the bigs motivated. The bigs need to have that killer mentality throughout the rest of the playoffs if the Lakers plan on doing any damage. Kobe always brings it, but he can't do it alone without Drew and Pau.

Game seven featured some of the most intense basketball I have seen. Game seven in '10 against Boston was nuts, especially considering it was a finals game, but this game seven was right on par, albeit for less of an accomplishment. The way everyone stepped up, the way Pau killed the glass, the way Bynum stepped out and hedged on screens, the way Metta stripped the ball, the way Blake hit clutch 3's, and the way Kobe hit that final 3, it was great, it was amazing, it was inspiring.

Although the Lakers blew their send off with KCAL 9, they did Fox Sports West right and sent the station off with a game for the ages. Fox Sports West ended their telecast, and 27 years of coverage, with a nice montage of the Lakers. We'll miss you FSW. Now onto the next one. Game one Monday in OKC. 

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