Western Conference Finals - Game 2 Recap
Denver 106, L.A. Lakers 103 - Series tied, 1-1
The Denver Nuggets have many miles to go before they can sleep like Western Conference champions, but at least they'll rest comfortably when they fly back to the Mile High City.
After grabbing a seven-point fourth quarter lead for the second straight game, George Karl's club wrote a happier script in Tinseltown by playing role reversal against the homestanding Lakers. All the things that went wrong for Denver in the final calamitous minutes of Game 1 suddenly flummoxed Phil Jackson's team in Game 2. As a result, the Lakers will have to win at least one slugfest in Colorado in order to return to the NBA Finals.
On the surface, many casual fans would look at this game and identify Carmelo Anthony as Denver's foremost hero. In assessing all 48 minutes of Thursday's throwdown, such a conclusion wouldn't be all that inaccurate. Melo lifted his game once again, scoring 34 points from multiple spots on the floor and acting the part of a superstar who delivers the goods at crunch time. Without Melo maxing out for most of the evening in L.A., the Nuggets wouldn't have entered the final minutes with a good chance of winning.
As well as Anthony performed, however, the unsung hero for Karl and Company--the true difference maker who stole the spotlight in the dying moments of regulation--was Nene, the very same center who didn't chase down rebounds and loose balls at the end of Game 1. In the latter stages of Tuesday's series-opening loss, the Brazilian big man wrapped up his counterpart, Pau Gasol, before an errant Laker jumper even hit the backboard. The lack of competitive appetite from Nene offered one key reason why L.A. earned extra free throws and tallied second-chance points in the fourth quarter of a game the Lakers won by two. Thursday, the calculus of commitment had to change if the Nuggets were to strike gold in California, and sure enough, Nene was the man at the center of Game 2's most meaningful moments.
While Melo kept pace with Kobe Bryant in a memorable mano-a-mano duel (Kobe notched 32 points and humbled Anthony with a pair of stunning, in-your-face 3-pointers during the final period), Nene did the dirty work to get the Nuggets even in this sensational series, which appears more than likely to last six or seven games. With 2:36 left, Nene snapped up a defensive rebound before a Melo putback gave Denver a 99-96 lead. With 1:20 left and the score tied at 99-all, Nene boxed out and protected the defensive glass once again. With just over 30 seconds left and the score tied at 101, a Denver possession teetered on the edge of disaster, as Chauncey Billups (27 points) drove near the rim but flipped the ball to the free throw line under pressure from a converging Laker defense. Who was there to pluck the loose ball? Nene. Who found teammate Kenyon Martin for a layup and a 103-101 Denver lead? Nene.
Was the Brazilian done for the night? Hardly.
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When Laker forward Trevor Ariza (who shone in this game with 20 unexpected points) lost the ball with 15 seconds left, just moments after claiming a jump ball won by Gasol, who was there to grab the steal? Nene. Who had the presence of mind to immediately flip the ball to Billups, a superb free throw shooter? Yup--Nene made the play. Billups did hit a pair of foul shots to give Denver a 105-101 lead with just under 14 seconds left, but when Billups (12-of-15 at the line for the night) later split a pair of free throws at the 4.3-second mark of regulation, the Lakers--down by three--had one last chance to tie. With Kobe covered, Derek Fisher sprang open in the right corner for a reasonably clean look at an overtime-producing triple. The shot wasn't going to be blocked, but a proud defender would at least find a way to make Fisher somewhat uncomfortable on his release. Intent on focusing to the finish line, one blue-shirted Denver dynamo did indeed fling his rangy frame toward the veteran guard. That man's name was none other than Nene. When Fisher's three fell well short of the basket, the Nuggets no longer had to worry about their ability to win in Los Angeles.
Melo played huge, and Billups made loads of great decisions in the fourth quarter to lend cohesion to Denver's halfcourt offense, but the player who sealed the second seed's split with the Western Conference's big dog was a Brazilian beast who flipped the script in Hollywood. On a night when the Nuggets--not the Lakers--produced late-game steals and hustle plays, and didn't leave points at the foul line the way they did in Game 1 (Denver hit 13-of-14 at the line in the fourth period; L.A. went just 9-of-14 in the final quarter), it was Nene who delivered the goods when his team needed a third wheel to emerge. Yes, Linas Kleiza stunned everyone in the building by posting 16 points off the pine for the visitors, but none of those points came in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. Championship basketball demands an ability to consistently finish games, and in the second exciting edition of Nuggets-Lakers, Nene knocked down a massive psychological barrier for a team unaccustomed to a deep playoff run.
Now the scene shifts to the Pepsi Center for a raucous Memorial Day weekend in the Rockies. If Nene brings Game 2 energy to Game 3, the Lakers will need their own uncommonly resourceful effort in order to feel good about their chances in this series.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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