Watching the Nuggets dominate the first half today while dropping free throws and easy possessions left and right, I felt like I was watching one of those movies where the good guy shoots the bad guy and then turns his back without confirming the bad guy's death, leaving everyone - except the good guy - knowing that the bad guy isn't dead yet. So it wasn't the least surprising when the Lakers crept back into the game, like a Hollywood villain who's down but not out, soon into the second half knowing they were damn lucky to be down just nine when it should have been 20.
The Nuggets handed this game over to the Lakers within the first four minutes of the second half. Out of their first five possessions in the second half, the Nuggets had four one-on-one shot attempts - all missed shots - and a turnover. As a result, the Nuggets didn't score for the first three-and-a-half minutes. Compounding problems, Nuggets head coach George Karl waited too long to call his first timeout of the second half (after four of the five bad possessions and a nine point lead cut to three, Karl finally asked for time) as that early second half performance called for an immediate timeout and lecture.
That said, four or five bad possessions does not a bad game make. 35.9% field goal shooting, a paltry 37 second half points and 20 turnovers - six more than your season average - does. Simply put, the Nuggets couldn't shoot straight and were irresponsible with the basketball in the second half. But they didn't put themselves in a position to shoot well thanks to countless careless, rushed-shot possessions. The ABC announcing team spent the entire second half falling over themselves to congratulate the Lakers defense, but I thought the Nuggets - like the good guy in the movie mentioned earlier - allowed their villainous opponents to get up and walk after being punched in the gut in the first half.
And thus, I feel like we got a sneak preview of the Western Conference Finals today. As if they haven't learned this already, the Nuggets must realize that owning the energy of one half of basketball won't be enough when they play the Lakers. They must own the energy of two halves, and shoot straight to boot.
A couple takeaways to think about...
...Arron Afflalo's double block on Pau Gasol and then Kobe Bryant to break up a Lakers fast break has to be the Nuggets defensive play of the year.
...J.R. Smith's pop-from-behind steals on Kobe Bryant in the first half were awesome, but then he tried it one too many times and was generally careless on defense in the second half. More on J.R. shortly.
...while Carmelo Anthony was having fun out there (which I thought was a good thing), Kobe Bryant looked miserable. Unfortunately, Melo and the Nuggets weren't able to maintain their looseness in the second half.
...any NBA player other than Bryant would have been ejected for his behavior towards the referees today. Bryant got tee'd up early in the first half and continued to push the envelope with the refs throughout the game. Apparently, whenever he gets his shot blocked Bryant assumes he must have been fouled.
...the Nuggets seem to have figured out Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and even Bryant (possibly, thanks to Afflalo's tireless and focused defense). And yet Lamar Odom continues to confound the Nuggets.
...with Sasha Vujacic unable to play, Ron Artest made up for his absence by flopping as often as possible. Artest even tipped his hand by telling ABC's Lisa Salters before the game that he was "adding flopping to his repertoire."
...the offensive foul against Melo - his sixth - against a flopping Artest at the 2:13 mark of the fourth quarter was complete horseshit. I won't blame the Nuggets loss on that call, but I'm already concerned that these types of calls will become a fixture in a possible Nuggets/Lakers playoff series.
In conclusion, I wouldn't stress too much over this loss. The Nuggets couldn't have played much worse in the second half and yet were a bad call away from possibly sending the game into overtime on the home floor of the NBA Champions. The good guys just may win yet.
Non-Stiff of the Game
-Lamar Odom: 20 points, 12 rebounds and four steals in 30 minutes of playing time. As noted above, Odom continues to be the puzzle that the Nuggets can't seem so solve when playing the Lakers.
Stiff of the Game
-J.R. Smith: After stupidly calling out Bryant on his Twitter account, J.R. proceeded to embarrass himself today with a 3-for-12 (1-for-7 from three point range) shooting "performance". As we've become accustomed to with J.R., it always seems to be two steps forward, one step back.
Photo courtesy of AP: Danny Moloshok