I'll do my best to cut through my depression and recap what we all saw tonight.
First off, the Nuggets didn't lose solely because George Karl foolishly inserted his shortest player to inbound the most critical possession of the game against the league's tallest team. But it certainly didn't help (more on that below).
The bottom line is that George Karl doesn't shoot free throws and he's not on the floor to close out on opposing three-point shots. And while the Nuggets played a solid game from start to finish, those two areas did them in.
By now you know the tale from the free throw line: 12 free throws missed. If the Nuggets make half of those, this game ends with the Nuggets up 1-0. It should be noted that missed free throws is what cost the Nuggets their other two road losses in the playoffs this year. Against New Orleans in Game 3 of the first round, the Nuggets missed 11 free throws and lost by just two points. And against Dallas in Game 4 in the second round, the Nuggets missed 12 free throws and, again, lost by a mere two points. And tonight's loss? You got it, by a mere two points.
Now, about that inbounds pass. I felt really bad for Anthony Carter, who didn't have his best game but played tough defense against Kobe, and also felt bad for Karl, who I thought coached a good game up until his bonehead decision to have the 6'0" A.C. inbounds the ball against the 6'10" Lamar Odom. Karl's insistence on having A.C. in games in critical situations - something we've griped about for two years now - finally bit him in the ass tonight. Of course, had the Nuggets made just a few more free throws, this is a non-issue, but that's not the reality. And it's a shame because otherwise the Nuggets played a fairly solid game, both mentally and physically.
Beyond the missed free throws, the inability to defend open three-point shots and A.C.'s horrific inbounds pass, there were a few other small items that cost the Nuggets the victory tonight...
...J.R. Smith missed several good three-point shots, and the bench overall delivered just 16 points. J.R. alone needs to go for 16 in Game 2 for the Nuggets to win.
...We missed a few "hump hand" plays (for those who go to Vegas a lot, you'll get the analogy). For example, when the Nuggets were up 89-82, Melo had a wide open three-pointer that might have put the Nuggets ahead for good. Instead, the shot clanked off the rim and in short order the Lakers were able to close the gap to 93-89. That was a six-point swing. And again at 94-89 with 4:31 left, Chauncey Billups had the opportunity to put the Nuggets up 97-89 but missed his three-point attempt.
...At the 00:36 mark, Melo played the best defensive I've ever seen him play by staying on Kobe and forcing Kobe to miss the go-ahead jumper. But the ball took an unkind bounce and the Nuggets weren't able to corral the rebound.
...Then, on the ensuing play, Kobe baited Kenyon Martin into a ticky tacky foul that sent him to the line for two made free throws.
...And with just three seconds left, rather than get the ball into Chauncey's hands who likely would have baited the Lakers into fouling him on a three-point shot attempt, it ended up in J.R. Smith's hands who didn't even think about hoisting up the three the very second he was fouled (as Chauncey discussed in his post-game press conference).
Overall, the Nuggets and their fans have every right to remain optimistic about their chances in this series. I didn't have the benefit of seeing things closeup on TV, but from my seats at the Staples Center it appeared as though the Nuggets thoroughly outplayed the Lakers for 47 minutes tonight. The deer-in-headlights look that we saw from the Nuggets in the playoffs and regular season in Los Angeles last year has completely disappeared. They - and we - know they can take the Lakers down.
And while it's unlikely that Carmelo Anthony will shoot an astounding 14-20 again in Game 2, it's just as unlikely that J.R. Smith will muster only eight points and Chauncey Billups will miss eight of his 13 attempts and three of his free throws.
Game 2 can't get here soon enough...
Nuggets/Lakers Game 1 Preview...
It's been said that if you ever get thrown into prison and want to avoid trouble, you need to go crazy and beat the crap out of the biggest guy you see as soon as possible. That's what the Boston Celtics did to these Lakers last year in the NBA Finals and that's exactly what the Nuggets need to do tonight.
Throw the first punch (errr...hard but not dirty foul), and then the second punch and then the third punch, and never look back.
Part of why I was teased into initially picking the Lakers to win this series wasn't just because the Lakers have won 10 out of their last 11 matchups, but because of how they won those games. I've had the not-so-great-privilege of attending the last six or so Nuggets/Lakers games played in the Staples Center, including the playoffs last year. I don't know how those games have translated on TV but in person, each Staples Center game has been a replica of its predecessor. In every case, the Lakers have owned the energy of the game while the Nuggets have allowed early calls from the referees to get under their skin, have looked out of sorts and never dictate the tempo.
That ends tonight.
Let them call us the Thuggets. Or Bad Boys 2.0. Or whatever they want to. During and after tonight's game, there should be no dispute who the tougher, more physically intimidating team in the series is.
No more easy dunks for Pau Gasol or waltzes into the lane for Kobe Bryant. No more wide open three's in the corner for Derek Fisher or easy put backs for Andrew Bynum.
The Rockets almost beat the Lakers by raining three-pointers on them. But they didn't win and the Nuggets won't win in a shoot out, either. But they can win a cage match (not the phony WWE style that thankfully won't be happening at Pepsi Center on Monday but the authentic UFC variety).
The Celtics beat the Lakers by throwing an assortment of double teams and body bumps at Kobe while keeping a tough low-post presence in the key to muscle Gasol out of the paint which forced the rest of the Lakers cast to make big shots. The Nuggets can do the same thing. Dahntay Jones, Chauncey Billups and - yes - Carmelo Anthony can make Kobe's life difficult on the perimeter, while Kenyon Martin and Nene keep Gasol and Bynum out of their respective comfort zones. If Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom and Sasha Vujacic make contested three's, so be it.
And on the offensive end of the floor, it starts with Carmelo Anthony's willingness to punish the Lakers interior defense. I've been beating the Melo-needs-to-get-to-the-free-throw-line drum ad nauseum all season long. But the wins and losses bear out my case. Including the playoffs, in games when Melo attempts at least nine free throws - two above his average - the Nuggets are 19-4 this season. In his four games against the Lakers this season, he attempted seven, four, zero and four free throws. Those are inexcusably low numbers. Melo's first shot attempt can't be a jumper but rather a head-down, bull rush to the rack that makes Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza think twice before attempting to take a charge on Melo's next possession. And J.R. Smith should do the exact same thing (remember how easily J.R. gets to the rack against the Lakers, too).
Easier said than done.
As my cousin Paul - a die hard Lakers fan - pointed out to me this morning, the Nuggets seem to get whistled out of their attempt to be physical whenever they play at the Staples Center. This is either the result of bad calls or bad defense, probably a combination of both. After what the Nuggets did to New Orleans and Dallas, there will certainly be some bad reputation calls that go against the Nuggets early. But that's no excuse not to impose their physical will on the Lakers tonight.
Tough, smart, physical play is the order for the night. If the Nuggets can do that while wearing down the Lakers interior defenders with wave after wave of drives to the basket (by Melo, J.R., Nene, K-Mart and even Chauncey and Dahntay), they can capitalize on the Lakers fatigue having just played Sunday, whereas the Nuggets have been off for a week.
I'll be seeing some of you at Staples Center early and I can't wait.
Let's steal Game 1.