Two of the finer teams in the Western Conference, post All-Star break, met in Los Angeles this afternoon. The Nuggets allowed the Lakers to dictate the pace of this afternoon's game, but it was the Nuggets coming out on top with an impressive 95-90 win at Staples Center. Oh, and the Nuggets clinched a playoff berth with the win.
The Lakers do not like to play from behind. It feels like when these two teams square off that two things are commonplace - lead changes and a rebounding edge for the Lakers.
Today, the rebounding was played evenly by the Nuggets. Denver did a great job on the offensive glass en route to grabbing 11 offensive boards. The Lakers, as usual, did work on the offensive glass as well pulling down 12 offensive boards. Each team grabbed 33 defensive rebounds, but one extra possession sealed the win.
With the Nuggets up just two points (92-90) Nene found himself at the foul line for two crucial free throws. The first shot did its best to worry Nuggets fans and break the hearts of the Lakers faithful as it bounced off the rim and eventually fell through the cylinder. The Brazilian's second shot wasn't so lucky as it fell off the front of the rim, but right into the hands of Kenyon Martin, who guided the ball back into the hoop giving Denver the final advantage at 95-90.
As Martin strutted back up court the announcers got on his case a little bit for not just hustling back on defense or going straight to the team's huddle. But like the ABC guys did all day - they were critical of Denver and gushing over the Lakers. For much of the game I figured we were getting the local Los Angeles announcers who were on Jerry Buss' dime, but no - we were getting some national talking heads in Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. During the game the trio talked lovingly about Kobe Bryant and his teammates and dismissed the Nuggets and Denver's inability to have the key player they need down the stretch.
Well, the Nuggets outscored the Lakers 26-21 in the fourth quarter and 55-43 in the second half. Like I said in my preview, the Lakers might have Bryant, but Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and others make L.A. a special team. L.A. had won nine in a row and were 17-1 since the All-Star break before today's loss.
The Nuggets improved to 15-4 since the All-Star break and won today's game in somewhat unfamiliar fashion. Phil Jackson and his staff did a nice job game planning for Denver's point guards and the big men for L.A. did a great job on pick-and-rolls not allowing Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson to penetrate after getting a screen. We saw George Karl ride the hot hand, Felton, down the stretch and put Lawson on the bench. Usually both guards are on the floor, but the Nuggets needed a bigger body on Bryant defensively.
Denver played the Lakers' slow it down game and beat them at it. The tempo of today's contest was not typical of what the Nuggets want to do, but it is something they will have to do in the post-season. Running teams often find themselves forced to play the half-court game in the playoffs and Denver had success doing that today.
In the first half Denver shot a miserable 13-44 as a team and only Danilo Gallinari was having consistent success in the first 24 minutes. Gallo scored 18 points in the first half, but was again lousy at the foul line where he shot just 5-9 and finished the afternoon just 5-11 from the charity stripe. Gallo was slowed down considerably in the second half as Ron Artest stopped leaving him open and stayed in front of him, but not to fear as Felton got going.
Felton didn't score in the first half and was taking some wild runners that were not finding their mark. But in the second half, after taking off his ugly green sneakers and putting on his usual baby-blues, he got it going and scored all 16 of his points after the break.
The Nuggets didn't have that crisp ball movement on display the whole game today, but they did make some pretty passes and combined for 24 assists. Denver never played with a big lead and each team took turns holding four or five point advantages. The Nuggets went out and beat the hottest team in the NBA and they did it by playing at the other team's tempo. This team keeps racking up impressive wins, but none were more satisfying than this one.
Ty Lawson - played 30 minutes, was 1-6 from the field for 5 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds and 5 turnovers. Derek Fisher was pretty physical with Lawson and Ty didn't get to put his usual stamp on this game with his scoring, but he did other things really well like sharing the ball and grabbing some boards. Not his finest game, but he was certainly a key factor. The Nuggets were a little bit lost without him on the floor to close this one out. Felton steered Denver home, but the team seems a bit more comfortable with Lawson out there in key moments.
Raymond Felton - played 30 minutes, 6-15 from the field (3-4 from deep), 4 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 turnovers. The Nuggets dynamic duo at point combined for 8 turnovers - really high for them. As noted above, Felton's 16 points all came in the second half and without him, the Nuggets do not win this game today. He hit some big time shots.
Wilson Chandler - 28 minutes, 3-9 shooting (0-2 from deep), 7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists. Not one of Chandler's finest games. I'd love to see him get to the rim and not use that pull-up jumper, but his style seems to favor that jumper just outside the paint. Chandler was totally uncomfortable on Bryant and could not stay with him. Probably unfair to ask him to guard Kobe, but the Nuggets didn't have anyone else to turn to today with Arron Afflalo out, J.R. Smith in foul trouble and the points too small. Chandler had a key rebound late and hit a big free throw to help seal the win. A tough game for him, but he's not going to kill you by taking a lot of shots if he doesn't feel in rhythm - a smart player.
Danilo Gallinari - 40 minutes, 7-13 (3-6 from deep and 5-11 from the foul line), 22 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists. He only scored 4 points in the second half, but he carried Denver in the first half. He was scoring on drives, leak outs, long bombs and getting himself to the foul line (wish he was making more!). He has a pretty three-point stroke and he's so tall that you can't bother him by running at him. The more I see of Gallo, the more I like his game. This kid continues not to be afraid of any opponent or any moment. Gallo passed the ball to Nene late in the game to set up Nene at the foul line for Martin's put-back and it probably would have been better for Gallo just to hang on for the foul, but with the refs who knows if they would have given Gallo the foul call.
J.R. Smith - 15 minutes, 2-8 shooting, 4 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists, 2 steals and 5 fouls. Rough game for J.R. as he got into foul trouble early picking up his 3rd foul at the 11:13 mark of the second quarter. His reaching in on defense has been an issue, but he also is putting in much better effort on D. He had a great steal at one point during the game, but overall this was a forgettable game for Swish. Sometimes he can give Kobe some fits, but he couldn't stay on the floor today to provide much help for Denver.
Al Harrington - 12 minutes, 2-4 shooting (1-3 from downtown), 4 points, 1 rebound, 1 steal. The Lakers are not a good match-up for Big Al. There was a spirited debate by the ABC guys on whether "Al Buckets" as Van Gundy called him, was ever a defensive ace for the Indiana Pacers when he was starting out in the league. Mark Jackson seemed to think so, but Van Gundy was adamant that his teams game planned to go right at him.
Kenyon Martin - 34 minutes, 8-15 shooting (2-2 free throws), 18 points, 8 rebounds (3 offensive), 1 assist. A very quiet 18 overall points, but a very loud ending to the game. K-Mart scored 6 points of Denver's final 9 points and his effort on the offensive glass was rewarded with that put-back layup off Nene's missed free throw. Did Kenyon get away with pushing Lamar Odom under the hoop on that one a bit? Martin had a nice game and was yet another player that you can say - without him, Denver loses. It's great to see Martin have a fine finish to this season as he's such a tireless worker and vocal leader.
Nene - 32 minutes, 5-8 shooting (2-5 from the foul line), 12 points, 7 rebounds (all defensive), 3 steals. Does anyone hate playing against Andrew Bynum more than Nene? The Lakers length really seems to bother Nene and he goes into total passive mode against that team. Perhaps Karl can get some goggles for Nene that show Tyson Chandler's face or something in place of Bynum's? Nene did hit some big shots, grab some boards and had a fantastic strip of Gasol late in the game to give the Nuggets the ball back on one of his three steals.
Timofey Mozgov - 15 minutes, 2-4 shooting (1-1 from the foul line), 5 points and 6 rebounds (1 offensive). MOZGOV MOZGOV MOZGOV!!! Karl was finally forced to play the Moz as Chris Andersen sat out today's contest. With some regular rotation minutes the Moz did pretty well. He was very active on the offensive end setting screens for his teammates (needs better contact on them) and hitting the glass. Defensively he bothered a couple shots, stayed with his man and had a couple goal-tending calls. Both his goal-tends could have gone either way, but it was nice to see him protecting the paint. Mozgov grabbed a couple rebounds in traffic that the Lakers usually gobble up against the Nuggets and he displayed a couple nice moves on offense. First, he grabbed a board over Gasol towards the end of the first quarter and put the ball in the hoop with a nice lefty hook shot. In the second half it was J.R. setting up Moz on off a pick-and-roll and Moz finishing in the paint with a nice And-1 layup and he hit his foul shot to give Denver the 80-77 lead in the fourth quarter. I understand that Birdman owns the minutes when he returns from injury, but Mozgov is going to demand playing time eventually with his solid contributions and his outrageous size. Moz appeared taller than Gasol and either as tall as or just a hair bigger than Bynum as well. The Nuggets have a true center!