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Western Conference Finals - Game 1 Recap

On a tension-filled Tuesday evening in the City of Angels, a sprawling drama worth the Hollywood stage unfolded at the Staples Center. Two hugely talented teams traded punches for 48 minutes in an even-steven brawl, so it made sense that the better team in the final few minutes would dig out a hard-earned triumph. When crunch time came calling in Los Angeles, the homestanding Lakers maintained their poise and focus, and that's why Phil Jackson's club took the first game of the 2009 NBA Western Conference finals.
 
Carmelo Anthony might have been the best player on the floor in this throwdown, scoring 39 points with equal portions of power, finesse, and shooting touch. Denver's defense might have been solid for much of the evening, and the Nuggets certainly tried their best to take the ball out of Kobe Bryant's hands whenever possible. Yet, for all the things they did well, the visitors from the Rocky Mountains failed to pay attention to detail in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, and that's why they're suddenly faced with a hugely important Game 2.
 
In the final minutes of play, the Lakers performed the simple but significant tasks that turn white-knuckle thrillers into exhilarating close-shave wins. Laker post player Pau Gasol outfought a lazy Nene and a distracted Chris Andersen for huge offensive rebounds in the last two minutes of regulation. By outfoxing Andersen on a loose ball battle with 35 seconds left and the score tied at 99-all, Gasol earned the Lakers an extra possession, which turned into two points when Bryant hit a pair of free throws with 30.5 seconds remaining.
 
The detail work done by the guys in gold would only continue to rise to the forefront.

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After Bryant's foul shots gave L.A. a 101-99 edge, Jackson had Lamar Odom guard Denver's Anthony Carter--a player with a big heart but a small body--on the subsequent inbounds pass. With Carter having a hard time seeing over Odom's long frame and even longer reach, the Nuggets' least-proven performer on the floor threw a timid, floating pass that was picked off by Laker forward Trevor Ariza with 28 seconds on the clock. Denver wisely chose to play defense--given the four-second differential between game clock and shot clock, plus the presence of a timeout that could produce a midcourt throw-in off a Laker miss--but when Bryant drew a foul with just 10 seconds left, the Nuggets found themselves in trouble. Kobe proceeded to hit yet another pair of foul shots (he was 12-of-13 from the line, part of a 40-point effort) for a 103-99 Laker lead. A late 3-pointer by Chauncey Billups gave the Nuggets a final glimmer of hope, but when Kobe hit two more free throws, Denver got the ball back with a 105-102 deficit, and 5.8 seconds left.
 
It was at this point that the Lakers--once more, with feeling--again put their thinking caps on. Jackson is and has been known as a coach who generally disdains the late-game foul when his team leads by three points. On this occasion, however, the Zen Master displayed new-age wisdom. He had his team foul Denver's J.R. Smith at midcourt with just 3.2 seconds left. The shrewd move forced Smith--who made his first free throw--to miss the second shot, given the fact that the Nuggets were out of timeouts and could no longer get an advanced throw in after an exchange of possessions. Smith did indeed miss the second free throw, but guess who?--Kobe--was there to pluck the rebound, and the Lakers withstood a vigorous challenge from George Karl's crew, all because they did the little things a little better in the final stages of a game that felt like a late-round NBA playoff war.
 
Looking ahead to Game 2 (Thursday at Staples Center, 9:15 p.m. Eastern, ESPN), the Lakers will want to get a better effort from Andrew Bynum (only 6 points, with 5 fouls), but will be happy to see Derek Fisher (13 points, 6 assists) play at the same level he attained in Game 1. Denver will need to see Nene maintain concentration for a full 48 minutes, and not duck in and out of possessions. The Nuggets will also need a much stronger effort from their bench, which was outscored in Game 1 by a 27-16 count, and a better night at the foul line (Denver went 23-of-35 from the charity stripe).
 
The Western Conference finals have the look and feel of a long, extended series with every game being a bona fide dogfight. Home court might not matter as much as one would think; as the Lakers and Nuggets develop a healthy hatred for each other, it's going to be the blue-collar battles and nuanced late-game decisions that will tip the scales ever so slightly in the direction of one team. High-level basketball defined Game 1, but the Lakers met the moment when a winner had to be counted. As this series continues, look for small but significant plays--the ones that don't show up in the stat sheet--as the ultimate barometer for what promises to be a big-time best-of-seven showdown.


 

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer


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