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Western Conference Finals - Game 5 Recap

L.A. Lakers 103, Denver 94 - Lakers lead series, 3-2
 
Bad back. What bad back?
 
It's been a long time since the Los Angeles Lakers looked as polished as they did in the decisive fourth quarter of their Game 5 win over the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals. Not so coincidentally, it's been a long time since Lamar Odom has played the kind of basketball he brandished on Wednesday against George Karl's club.
 
Odom, bothered by a bad back he suffered earlier in the playoffs, posted a 19-point, 14-rebound, 4-block masterpiece off the bench to give Phil Jackson's team a series lead heading into Friday's Game 6 in Denver. Because of a clutch effort in the latter stages of this evenly-fought war for the West, Odom ensured that the Lakers won't get knocked out of the postseason in the Mile High City; if the Nuggets are to win this best-of-seven showdown, they'll have to do so in seven games, and on L.A.'s home floor.
 
Many casual fans, in assessing Odom's difference-making performance, will naturally look to his 19 points, eight of which came in a fourth quarter that broke open a 76-all tie after three periods. However, the truly distinctive and defining element of Odom's awesome evening at Staples Center was his ability to give the Lakers a three-man wall of resistance near the rim. In a game that entered the halftime break with a 56-56 score, the home team ultimately prevailed because it clamped down on Denver in the second half, limiting the high-octane Nuggets to just 38 points. Pau Gasol (5 blocked shots) and Trevor Ariza (2 blocks) did their fair share to thwart hard but unintelligent slashes to the goal by Denver ballhandlers--particularly Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin--but it was Odom's length and energy that really surprised the Nuggets.
 
Naturally, Odom's imposing 4-block breakthrough should have surprised the crew from Colorado. Why? The answer is deceptively simple... and something of a backhanded slap toward the agile and interchangeable forward: That kind of vintage Lamar Odom-style defense hadn't existed at earlier points in the series. Ariza might have starred as a third wheel (behind Gasol and Kobe Bryant) in the ever-important Game 3, which swung home-court advantgage back to the Lakers, but in that contest from Memorial Day weekend, Odom was frequently chastised by Jackson for not getting back on defense in transition. Game 5 marked the first time in the West finals that Odom--in a display reminiscent of his authoritative romp through the 2008 Western Conference playoffs--re-emerged as the defender and rebounder who can make life hell for opposing teams. Denver missed lots of open looks in its nightmarish second half, and Carmelo Anthony should have used his body with more creativity and deftness when he got near the rim, but the fact remains that Odom elevated his game at the very moments when the Lakers needed him to emerge from the Staples Center shadows.

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Just how much of an impact did the three-man gang of Odom, Gasol and Ariza have on the performance of Denver's offense, and by extension, the ultimate outcome of this pivotal passion play? With Anthony and teammate J.R. Smith (7 points on 3-of-13 shooting) going stone-cold from long distance, the Nuggets' wings tried to rampage to the rim and draw fouls. Odom, however, wouldn't allow those pell-mell thrusts to have any effect on the Lakers' defensive form. L.A. stood tall and tough in the painted area, not leaving its feet on fakes or lunging forward to meet blue-shirted bodies. With fundamentally sound technique and legal position on most of Denver's forays to the basket, Odom and his teammates snuffed out seven second-half shots while altering countless others. Because of the Lakers' markedly improved interior defense, the Nuggets--after gaining a 73-66 lead, their biggest of the game, with 5:11 left in the third quarter--scored just one basket over the next nine minutes and 18 seconds. By the time Anthony hit a pair of free throws with 7:52 left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers had turned their seven-point deficit into an 87-78 lead. Denver got within four on two subsequent occasions later in the period, but a dubious foul call on Nene (4 points) and a pretty give-and-go that led to an old-fashioned three-point play by Ariza enabled the Lakers to remove any drama from the final few minutes of regulation.
 
Everyone in the know said as much before Game 5: Just like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the L.A. Lakers needed to show that they were more than just a one-man team. After Lamar Odom's big night in Southern California, the top seed in the West has reshaped its identity. With one more game defined by role-player resourcefulness, the Lakers will earn a ticket to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season.



 

By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer


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