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Western Conference Finals - Game 4 Recap

Denver 120, L.A. Lakers 101 - Series tied, 2-2
 
For much of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Denver Nuggets gained better bench play than the Los Angeles Lakers, only for Trevor Ariza to produce a huge fourth quarter and give L.A. a mammoth road victory. Two nights later in Game 4, the Nuggets' reserves remained strong for 48 minutes, while the Lakers didn't have any answers in Phil Jackson's 11-man rotation. That, in short, is why this best-of-seven series is now a best-of-three fight to the finish line.
 
This contest was naturally critical for Denver. The Nuggets would not have been able to climb back from a 3-1 deficit, so it was imperative to go back to Los Angeles with an even series on their hands. With that said, it's not as though George Karl's club achieved a great deal in Game 4. The Nuggets merely kept the series interesting and assured themselves of another home date in Game 6 on Friday. This Memorial Day dunking of the Lakers made Denver's weekend less than a complete disaster, but the searing Saturday setback in Game 3 still lingers over the Mile High City like a dark, angry raincloud.

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If this seems like an inappropriate way to characterize a decisive late-May victory in the next-to-last round of the NBA postseason, a bit of an explanation is required. Even though Denver pulled through against the defending Western Conference champions, the Nuggets' reactions in the fourth quarter of their romp were consistent with the actions of a team that had closed out a series. J.R. Smith (24 points off the bench), who flourished over the weekend at the Pepsi Center, pranced and preened and strutted--in front of the Laker bench, no less!--after hitting a few late 3-pointers to finish off the victory. Had this been the clincher in a six-game series, Smith could have been forgiven for celebrating the Nuggets' first-ever trip to the NBA Finals; but since Denver merely drew even at the end of a so-so weekend in which it ceded home-court advantage back to the Lakers, Smith had no reason to behave the way he did. When one also considers the fact that Carmelo Anthony (just 3-of-16 from the field and not in good physical condition) and Kenyon Martin (13 points, 15 rebounds) picked up fourth-quarter technicals within seconds of each other, it's clear that the Nuggets--unused to playing this late in the playoffs--are acting like brats. That's a lamentable development in and of itself, but what's even more worrisome for George Karl and big-boy veteran Chauncey Billups (who tallied 24 points in Game 4) is that Kobe Bryant--who led all scorers with 34 points--is not one to forget the immature behavior of an opposing team. Denver might have had a joyride on home hardwood Monday evening, but the scene for Wednesday's Game 5 in L.A. should have a very different feel. Assuming it does, the next game to be played in Denver will likely be an elimination game for the Nuggets, who--instead of celebrating their 2-2 status in the series--should be kicking themselves for losing two winnable games and not having a 3-1 lead in their pocket.
 
Give Denver credit for playing a quality Game 4, and having three players--Martin, Chris Andersen, and Nene--who out-rebounded the Lakers by themselves (42-40). Beyond this one victory, however, the Nuggets--who blew golden opportunities in previous games and incited the Lakers for Game 5--are still not sitting pretty as the West finals intensify. It's going to take a mighty effort for Denver to win yet again in Southern California; if the Nuggets can't strike gold in L.A., their season will end... and their behavior during this 19-point win will look all the more foolish.

 

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer


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