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Western Conference Finals - Game 3 Recap

L.A. Lakers 103, Denver 97 - Lakers lead series, 2-1
 
Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, the laws of nature--along with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol--taught the Denver Nuggets a harsh but ultimately necessary lesson: The journey to an NBA championship involves the ability to pass many kinds of tests, not just one.
 
If the brash and youthful Nuggets thought that their Game 2 victory gave them the clear upper hand in the Western Conference finals, they sorely underestimated not only the Los Angeles Lakers, but the history of NBA basketball. In a league where teams typically endure a steady uphill climb before tasting the nectar of championship glory, the Nuggets--perhaps intoxicated by their sudden success in the 2009 playoffs--didn't play with the same confidence that marked the first two games of this series. As a result, the visitors from L.A. regained home-court advantage as quickly as they lost it, immediately reaffirming Phil Jackson's team as the pronounced favorite in this best-of-seven battle.
 
In a fourth quarter won 32-18 by the Lakers, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol made the ballsy veteran plays that an experienced playoff team--not a nervous and distracted upstart--produces in the crucible of crunch time. While Carmelo Anthony (only 21 points after ringing up 34 points in Game 2) failed to hit a single field goal in the final period, and the Nuggets turned into a jump-shooting team without any offensive balance, the Lakers' meal-ticket scorers delivered the goods. After a four-point play by Chauncey Billups (18 points) gave Denver an 89-86 lead with 4:50 left in regulation, Gasol hit two extremely difficult turnaround jumpers against high-level defense from Nene to give the Lakers a 90-89 edge. After the Nuggets regained a 95-93 lead on a jumper by a revitalized J.R. Smith (10 points and 6 assists after doing nothing in L.A.), Kobe would take advantage of a defensive error by Smith to tip the game in the Lakers' direction.
 
Smith--who guarded the Black Mamba quite admirably for much of the evening--picked the wrong time to make a bad gamble. Smith reached below his waist and leaned to his right in a feeble, low-percentage attempt to steal the dribble from L.A.'s singular superstar. With his man out of position, Kobe promptly shot into the air and released a 3-pointer that--due to Smith's bent-over body angle--was not contested. Precisely when Denver and coach George Karl could not afford to allow Kobe to hit a long bomb, J.R. Smith's mental lapse allowed No. 24 to have a free shooting hand and a clear look from behind the arc. The ball naturally splashed through the twine, and the Lakers saw a 96-95 lead fall into their laps with 1:08 left. Whether it was Gasol's clutch turnarounds or Kobe's huge three, the Lakers got the production they needed from their main offensive threats.
 
Moments after Kobe's mammoth shot, the Nuggets, down 97-95, had one more chance to tie or take the lead, only to have lightning strike the same place for the second time in the series. In an eerie repeat of Game 1, Denver turned the ball over in the final minute of regulation on a wayward inbounds pass after a timeout. In Game 1, Anthony Carter floated a terrible pass to the midcourt line that was promptly plucked by Laker forward Trevor Ariza. In this contest, the same basic pattern unfolded, except for the fact that Kenyon Martin threw a cringe-inducing floater, not Carter. When Carmelo Anthony--having to prevent a breakaway layup--grabbed Ariza on the play, the Nuggets' star fouled out with 36 seconds left. Ariza--who scored 16 huge points for L.A., and 8 of them in the final period--promptly nailed two free throws, and Kobe hit four more in the final half-minute to seal the victory. Denver played hard, but not confidently, in a building where George Karl's crew hadn't lost since mid-March. The defeat is an immensely painful one for a team that was oozing confidence when it left Los Angeles on Thursday, but the setback represents an upholding of the NBA's long-term trajectory.

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The history of professional basketball suggests that teams, on their march to a title or at least an NBA Finals appearance, must get punched in the mouth before their time finally arrives. Larry Bird's Boston Celtics usually lost to Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers before emerging as the Eastern Conference team of the 1980s. The Detroit Pistons needed a lot of willpower to finally overtake the Celtics in the latter part of the decade. At the beginning of the 1990s, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls required some hard knocks before pushing past the Bad Boys. On and on the story goes. In the West, the pattern has been a similar one: From Drexler's Blazers to Olajuwon's Rockets to David Robinson's Spurs; from the Stockton-Malone Jazz to the Shaq-Kobe Lakers to the Nowitzki-Howard Mavs, virtually every team that's either made or won the NBA Finals had to experience appreciable adversity in the postseason before advancing to a higher plateau. For a Denver franchise that hadn't been to the conference finals since 1985, and hadn't moved past the first round in 15 years, this series against the Lakers wasn't going to be easy. Yet, in light of the emotionally volatile yet strangely timid way in which they played Game 3, it seemed as though the Nuggets thought they had it made after winning Game 2 on the road.
 
They should have known better. As the series now moves to Monday's Game 4 in Denver, it's worth putting Game 3 to bed with a little piece of perspective.
 
Whenever a young, strong, confident underdog gets a road split at the start of a best-of-seven series, a lot of pundits will take different views in assessing the pivot point of the series. Some experts think that Game 4 is the most crucial game of a seven-game series that starts out 2-1 in either direction. However, Game 3 of Lakers-Nuggets was significant because it gave a lot of ammunition to proponents of a competing theory, which is that the third game--not the fourth--is the true hinge point of a competitive series.
 
Game 4 might become huge if the series underdog--playing the middle games at home--breaks up 2-1 and can earn a 3-1 advantage before flying back to the higher seed's lair for Game 5. But in order for the lower seed to grab a 2-1 lead, it must naturally win Game 3 and sustain the momentum generated by the road split on the favored team's home floor. The Nuggets passed their first test--winning on the road in L.A.--but Denver most certainly failed the second test of a team intent on dethroning the Western Conference title-holders: keeping the mojo flowing at home. This Game 3 loss is a huge blow for the Nuggets, but when viewed from the vantage point of an NBA historian, this Laker victory makes perfect sense; it fits with the larger narrative written by the league over the past few decades.
 
The 2009 Nuggets had never before experienced the position they occupied as they took the court Saturday evening. Now that they've learned about the many different tests that emerge in a high-stakes series, this Denver ballclub--newly humbled by the Lakers and by their own loss of nerve--will try to get back on the beam in Game 4. If they don't, what figured to be a long series could suddenly turn into a five-game quickie for Kobe Bryant's bunch.

 

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer


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