On a night that was all about Kobe Bryant, Will Barton did his best Black Mamba impersonation in the first half for the Denver Nuggets in Tuesday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers by scoring 23 points in the first two quarters. A horrible defensive performance from the Nuggets and a tied season-high of 31 points from Bryant, however, allowed the Lakers to come back from 21 down in the second quarter to defeat the Nuggets, 111-107.
The first quarter began poorly for the Nuggets, as they allowed the Lakers to shoot 4/5 from the field, mostly jump shots, before Michael Malone was forced to take a quick timeout. According to Blake Olson, Malone told his players "I'm not going to let this occur two straight games." The Nuggets got the Lakers to miss more shots after this, but the real story revolved around the Nuggets offense. Kostas Papanikolaou had two three pointers in the quarter, and after Gary Harris went down with a scary looking injury, Barton came in and caught fire. He hit two three pointers, including a four-point play, and got to the basket easily. He had a whopping 18 points in the first quarter and pretty much carried the Nuggets on his back. Bryant, meanwhile, seemed to take control in this quarter for his team, as he took 10 shots and made 4 of them to score 13 points. The first quarter ended with the Nuggets leading, 34-26.
The second quarter began with, you guessed it, another Barton basket. He continued to score easily against the Lakers, and Nikola Jokic had some amazing plays, including a sling pass to Randy Foye.
Wow!! Jokic with the AWESOME sling pass to Foye https://t.co/fpsui8b4Sp— Kayla Osby (@nuggetchica) December 23, 2015
Harris, who was surprisingly able to return pretty soon after leaving the game with a knee sprain, came in and had some good drives to the basket and made jump shots as well. Overall, the young Nuggets were tearing apart the Lakers defense, and without Bryant in the game to chuck up shots, his team seemed lost on offense as well. The Nuggets went on a 13-0 run late in the second quarter to go up 64-43, as Kenneth Faried came alive during this stretch, but the Lakers answered back with an 8-0 run of their own to cut the lead to 13 at halftime. Barton ended the half with 23 points.
The Nuggets played horribly in the third quarter, as they gave up too many easy baskets inside and outside of the paint. Malone was forced to take his second timeout of the third quarter after the Lakers went on a 12-0 run and cut the lead to two points, but the Nuggets struggled on both ends after that as well. Bryant had 7 points in the quarter, and Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams started hitting shots, too. The Nuggets, meanwhile, went cold on offense and the Lakers had the lead going into the fourth, 83-80, after outscoring the Nuggets 32-16 in the period. The fourth quarter consisted of Julius Randle and company dominating on the inside, jump shots from Williams, Bryant and Clarkson and missed shots and turnovers from the Nuggets. Still, Darrell Arthur came in and hit some key jumpers, Jokic continued to impress and Harris had a dunk and a three-pointer to cut the lead to three late in the fourth, but some clutch shots from Bryant and the inability of the Nuggets to execute put this one in the bag for the Lakers, as they won 111-107.
Box score via Espn.com
Key Matchup: Will Barton vs. Kobe Bryant
The key matchup in my game preview was Bryant vs. Danilo Gallinari, but with Gallo out, Barton did all he could to make up for the loss of the Rooster. In the first quarter, Barton and Bryant were controlling the offense for their respective teams, as Bryant finished with 13 points and Barton finished with 18 in the period. Bryant didn't play in the second quarter, but in the second half came back to take control once again. He also took the responsibility of defending Barton in the last two periods, and as Byron Scott noted in his post-game interview, Barton only had two points after that. While Barton looked better in the first half, this game goes to Bryant as he was able to hit clutch shots down the stretch for his team and obviously had an impact on Barton's offense. It was also the second-to-last time he will be playing in the Pepsi Center, and he definitely gave the fans that came to seee him something to remember him by.
Nuggets Bench vs. Nuggets Starters
Just like it was a tale of two halves, it was also a tale of bench vs. starters for the Nuggets. Denver's starters were outscored 82-49 by the Lakers' starters, a combination of Jameer Nelson being sick, Gallinari unable to play with the sprained ankle, and Joffrey Lauvergne having an off game. The Nuggets bench, however, led by Barton and Jokic, outscored the Lakers' bench 58-29. Harris had a great game and Faried had a respectable game, but the starters were outperformed by Clarkson, Williams and Bryant, and this played a big part in the Nuggets giving up their lead in the third quarter.
Key Question: Will the Pepsi Center be packed with fans hoping to see Bryant one last time before he retires?
Yes. It was packed, and mostly by Kobe fans. A friend who was at the game texted me at one point saying "This game is annoying. Way way too many Kobe fans." Props to Bryant for giving them something to cheer about, though.