Western Conference Finals - Game 6 Recap
L.A. Lakers 119, Denver 92 - Lakers win series, 4-2
On Friday night at the Pepsi Center, the team that dominated the NBA's Western Conference in the regular season reappeared late in the 2009 postseason. The Denver Nuggets never had a chance against a purple and gold goliath who has just reasserted itself as the favorite for the world championship of professional basketball.
The Western Conference finals are over, and for the second year in a row, it's the Los Angeles Lakers who stand tall as the best in the West. By shooting extremely well, sharing the ball, and playing the sport the way a rightfully pleased Phil Jackson intended, the Lake Show punched a ticket to another NBA Finals.
The lads from Los Angeles lumbered through most of this year's playoffs, partly due to Lamar Odom's tweaked back, and partly because of Andrew Bynum's inability to find a steady rhythm after rejoining the lineup late in the regular season. Throw in the decreasing speed and reliability of point guard Derek Fisher, and it became clear that the Phil and Kobe crew would experience tough sledding against a hungry bunch of young bucks from the Mile High City. Why, then, were the Lakers able to produce such a convincing performance in Game 6? To understand how the West was won, you have to go back to the first game Denver hosted in this best-of-seven showdown.
The Nuggets had a chance to make the Lakers doubt themselves, and give credence to the idea that the Western Conference championship would run through the Rocky Mountains. That golden opportunity came in Game 3 on Saturday, May 23. Having just split in L.A., after two well-played games that almost netted them a road sweep of the Lakers, the Nuggets had momentum and homecourt advantage in their corner. With Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol looking for--but not receiving--help from the rest of their teammates, a balanced Denver team had the ability to wear down the Lakers. By virtue of playing at home for Game 3 and Game 4, George Karl's club found itself in a position where its role players--Chris Andersen, J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza, Anthony Carter, and Dahntay Jones--figured to thrive. Superstars can function in any building, but complementary pieces usually fall into place at home. Denver had a chance to create, and then win, a war of attrition by making the series a 10-on-5 competition over 48 minutes, and a 5-on-2 fight in live, real-time action.
Instead, the Nuggets allowed their energy and vigor to turn against them.
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A series of technical fouls robbed Denver of both points and, more importantly, momentum in the second half of Game 3. Despite holding an eight-point lead after three periods, the Nuggets--who failed to adjust to the officiating--never looked to be safely in control of the game or, for that matter, their emotions. Kobe and Gasol, with help from Trevor Ariza, made tons of poised, composed plays in the fourth quarter to give the Lakers a win that squelched any hopes of Denver-based domination. Instead of being in position to gain a 3-1 series lead and ultimately take the West finals in six games on home court, the Nuggets lost any reasonable chance to shape the series the way they wanted. Just as important, Denver's psychological hold on the series, following Game 2, immediately evaporated. Sure, the Nuggets breezed past the weary Lakers in Game 4, but while the Nuggets celebrated that win as though they had won the whole series, the Lakers knew that, for one thing, they could win the games that really mattered. Second, the L.A. roster also knew that Denver's excessive exuberance was the sign of a team that hadn't quite learned how to handle itself this late in the playoffs. When Denver failed to be up 3-1 after four games, the Lakers--who took a mental break in a Game 4 they didn't desperately need--were able to regroup. Wednesday's Game 5 indicated as much.
When Game 6 began, the Lakers--far from being in the clubhouse with champagne but free from the pressure of playing an elimination game--looked the part of a mentally refreshed team that had rediscovered a champion's swagger. Several men in purple jerseys shot the ball well. Kobe went 12-of-20, Gasol 8-of-12, Ariza 7-of-9, Odom 7-of-12, and even Luke Walton threw down shots with regularity, hitting five of his seven field goal attempts. The Lakers also shared the ball with a willingness not seen until the final quarter of Game 5, when the Lakers truly turned the corner in this series. Two nights after Kobe allowed his teammates to thrive, the same feel-good vibe permeated through the Laker lineup in Colorado. Kobe handed out 10 assists in this game, while Gasol chipped in with six dimes and Fisher four. Unselfish and timely passing fed teammates for high-quality open looks off catches, not dribbles; by playing basketball with the artfulness Phil Jackson knows well, dating to his days as a role player on the great Red Holzman-coached New York Knick teams of the early 1970s, the Lakers established a standard of play that will be hard for the Eastern Conference champion to match.
Denver had its chance in this series, but that chance came early; when the Nuggets whiffed in the latter stages of Game 3, their hopes of an upset--and a first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals--went by the boards. As the Boston Celtics showed last year, you need to rock and sock the Lakers, punching them in the mouth right after the opening bell so that they can't get their teeth into the fight. As a series progresses, the Lakers get better and acquire more rhythm and cohesion at the offensive end of the floor. If you don't strike the Lake Show at the first moment of opportunity, an elite coach (Jackson) and an all-time great player (Kobe) will close the door on you at the end.
Memo to Orlando or Cleveland: If you're going to win the NBA Finals, plan on leading the Lakers after the first three games of the series. If not, the sport's best closer is likely to bring home a fourth Lawrence O'Brien Trophy and vindicate a career that's ready to emerge from Shaquille O'Neal's shadow.
By Matt Zemek
Pro-Basketball Fans staff-writer
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