Coming into Tuesday night’s opening game of the Lakers versus Nuggets Western Conference Finals matchup, this series had more question marks on both sides than any in the 2009 playoffs so far.
Had the Lakers completely lost their swagger after an unexpectedly hard-fought, seven-game series with the undermanned Rockets? Could they bang with a team that was not only physical like the Rockets but also proficient on the offensive end? Was this Nuggets team of two stars and a gaggle of role players that had unexpectedly beaten a path to the second seed and Conference Finals for real? Could Carmelo Anthony continue to excel like a star on the big stage of the NBA Playoffs?
There’s still a lot that remains to be seen. Series are rarely won by the home team in Game One. But after an excellent, heated first game to the proceedings, we now know three things: one, the Lakers can hang with these upstart Nuggets. Two, the Nuggets can hang with these incumbent Western champ Lakers.
And three, this is going to be one hell of a series.
Kobe Bryant and Kenyon Martin Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Both teams can take a lot from this game. The Lake Show has to be pleased to escape with a W after looking lost for much of the last week and trailing for 90% of this game. It wasn’t pretty, but they proved they can bang with a more aggressive squad that’s looking to punch them in the mouths every time down the floor.
The Lakers also know that even though they eeked out the win, they can play better. Perhaps the only positive to come from going the distance last round, LA knows that Andrew Bynum is capable of stepping up and making a bigger impact on the glass and in the paint (6 points, 6 boards and 5 fouls in only 15 minutes). They also know that Trevor Ariza isn’t just a steals artist (3 swipes in the contest, including one on a crucial inbound pass for Denver in the final minute), and that he can pester Carmelo Anthony into a less efficient game. They know somebody from their bench, most likely Lamar Odom, can contribute more than a measly 7 points. They also know they can take better care of the ball as a team (25 assists to 15 turnovers) and do a better job of keeping Denver’s bigs out of the paint.
Why Denver fans have reason for optimism, after the jump…
On the other side, the Denver Nuggets and their fans have absolutely no reason to hang their heads right now. Sure, there were numerous missed opportunities, the bench was surprisingly quiet, and they missed a maddening 12 of their 35 free-throw attempts. The Nugs still stepped up in a major way on Tuesday on both ends of the floor. On defense, they held Derek Fisher to 0-6 from the floor until the final seconds of the first half, and their strength and speed completely negated the Lakers superior length down low for a bulk of the game. They held everybody in purple and gold not named Bryant to single digits in the first half, and in the end Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher were Bryant’s only teammates to reach double digits.
On offense Denver was able to get to the rim with ease through three quarters, notching six uncontested dunks in the first half alone. Nene was the game’s most dominant big man before succumbing to foul trouble that eventually ended his night. The Birdman was able to come in and assert himself on the game as we’ve all grown accustomed to this season, dropping an efficient 8 points while blocking 2 shots and altering numerous others.
And aside from three consecutive missed free throws in the first half, Chauncey Billups was Chauncey Billups, quietly managing teammates on both ends and finding open men while dropping 18 points, 5 boards and 8 assists against just 1 turnover. And, true to form, Mr. Big Shot hit a massive three to bring the game within one point with six seconds remaining. That left them a missed Kobe free throw from potentially sending the game to OT.
The biggest development on Denver’s end is how Carmelo Anthony responded to the situation and stage. To put it simply, he was transcendent. Nobody on the Lakers roster could check him all night with the exception of a brief spell in the second quarter when Kobe manned up while the Lakers battled back into a game that was perilously close to being in hand for Denver in the first half.
The final line doesn’t even tell the whole story of how hard Melo battled and how many difficult shots he hit – but it tells some of it. 39 points, 6 boards and 4 assists while shooting 7-8 from the line and 14-20 from the field, including 4-5 from downtown. Melo was brilliant in all phases, fighting valiantly for position around the basket all game, nailing open jumpers from every spot on the floor and taking it to the hole with assertiveness. It would be difficult to overstate just how much of a bull he was on offense.
Unfortunately for Anthony, his best friend from last summer’s Olympic games was just slightly better. Kobe dropped 40 points, 6 boards and 4 assists with just one turnover and a clutch 12-13 from the line. Despite a lackluster effort from nearly all of his teammates, Kobe was able to single-handedly keep his team in the game all night, seemingly holding things together with Elmer’s Glue and rubber bands until he was able to ice it from the line in the final minutes.
But Nuggets fans know Chauncey Billups can be a bigger factor. They know that JR Smith can make better decisions and contribute more on offense. They know Chris Anderson can get after the ball more. They know Nene can stay out of foul trouble and be a bigger factor in the second half. They know the team defense can keep the Lakers below 44% from behind the arc. They know they can play more efficient ball (15 turnovers, 9 blocked shots allowed, 12 missed free throws). They know they can be better. A lot better.
Right now, after a 105-103 Lakers home win in Game One, both of these teams know they can hang with the other guys. That’s a good thing for NBA fans everywhere.
Bring on Game Two.