Taking high ground
It was arguably the biggest game in Denver Nuggets history, played out in front of a piercingly loud crowd that hadn’t seen a Western Conference finals home game in 24 years.
One problem, though. The Lakers weren’t bothered.
They’d seen stuff like this long before the alleged ascension of the Nuggets. They might also live to see games of greater importance this season, thanks to an inspired effort Saturday night.
The Lakers clawed and scrapped with the physically intimidating Nuggets, scratching out a 103-97 victory and taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Monday, also at the Pepsi Center.
Kobe Bryant had 41 points, Pau Gasol had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and Trevor Ariza came up with another memorable steal off a late inbounds play.
After it was over, Gasol and Bryant embraced for a long time on the court. This was a big one for a team accused of not showing up at times in these playoffs.
“We competed,” said Gasol, his voice hoarse and his hair dripping wet as he walked to the team bus.
No argument here. This was nothing like the Lakers’ misfires against Houston. This was an emotional victory, unlike many of theirs in the first round against Utah.
Bryant was exhausted afterward. It might have been the altitude, or the emotion, or the force needed to beat the always-amped Nuggets, who hadn’t lost at home since March 9.
He looked wobbly when the game ended and got tired simply standing in a hallway while waiting for Gasol’s postgame interview session to end. He ambled over to a chair in a dark corner and put his head in his hands.
Two minutes later, he spoke to the media, his words standing as strong as his effort, which included 12-for-24 shooting, six rebounds and five assists.
“I rank this right up there with some of the biggest road wins we’ve had since I’ve been a Laker,” Bryant said. “In the past, we always had guys that had a lot of experience -- Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Harper -- they’ve all been through this stuff before. For our guys, this is brand new.
“Last year, we weren’t tested like this, so this means a lot. And it goes a long way for us as a ball club.”
Ariza was another emblem of the go-all-out Lakers, walking with stiff, stilted steps afterward.
He left the game late in the third quarter because of a strained groin and sore hip, but he returned to start the fourth quarter, ready to take another step into Lakers playoff lore.
He made his second game-tilting defensive play of the series, stealing Kenyon Martin’s inbounds pass from the left side with 37.1 seconds to play, beating Carmelo Anthony to the ball.
Anthony then fouled Ariza, whose free throws put the Lakers ahead, 99-95.
Ariza stole Anthony Carter’s inbounds pass in Game 1 with 30.5 seconds to play, helping push the Lakers to a 105-103 victory.
“It’s kind of funny,” Ariza said. “It was pretty much the same thing, different players involved. But we got the steal.”
Some might say the Lakers stole this victory. They were down virtually the entire first half, Chris Andersen scoring 13 points and lending credence to a local TV network slogan of “Amazing happens in Denver.”
Denver fans were ready to burst when J.R. Smith made an off-balance 27-foot three-pointer as time expired in the third quarter, giving the Nuggets a 79-71 lead, matching the Lakers’ largest deficit of the game.
But Bryant helped bring the Lakers back with 13 fourth-quarter points, none larger than a three-pointer over Smith with 1:09 left, giving the Lakers the lead for good, 96-95. It looked like Smith might have gotten a piece of the shot.
“To be honest with you, the shot was going short,” Bryant said. “It was going to be well short and then he got the ball, arm, whatever, and I had to put a little bit more effort into the shot. Had to kick a little bit more into it. And so it went in.”
Gasol was also strong down the stretch, making a 14-footer and a turnaround 15-footer. Bryant was more than thrilled.
“I haven’t had a break for three years now, and the team’s been leaning on me,” Bryant said. “And you need support too, and Pau gave me the support I needed for about three straight plays. I didn’t have anything [left]. I just laid on the baseline side and just tried to rest and Pau made some big shots -- and bought me some time.”
The Lakers might have rested easier had they made more foul shots. They never took full advantage of a 31-24 foul disparity in their favor, making only 31 of 45 free-throw attempts (68.9%).
It was a minor critique, really, in the scheme of things.
They survived the altitude, the attitude, and the exhaustion. It was their night, indelibly.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
So much has been made by both teams -- during the game and after -- about the fouls and the officiating. A free-throw breakdown after three games:
at Lakers 105, Denver 103
Denver: 23-35 (65.7%)
Lakers: 20-24 (83.3%)
Denver 106, at Lakers 103
Denver: 29-37 (78.4%)
Lakers: 27-35 (77.1%)
Lakers 103, at Denver 97
Lakers: 31-45 (68.9%)
Denver: 26-31 (83.9%)
Lakers: 78-104 (75.0%)
Denver: 78-103 (75.7%)
Source: Los Angeles Times