Lakers put Nuggets in lockdown and earn a key victory
The Lakers pledged to play a physical game and did it.
They promised to beat back the swagger and strut of the Denver Nuggets and succeeded.
On an afternoon when little went right for Kobe Bryant, the Lakers boxed out their main rivals in the Western Conference, elbowing aside the Nuggets in a 95-89 victory Sunday at Staples Center.
It took a second half of defensive resolve, specifically a fourth quarter in which the Lakers forced the Nuggets into five turnovers and five-for-19 shooting.
The Nuggets think they have the Lakers’ number? Not so fast.
“I think we answered the call,” said forward Lamar Odom, who set the physical agenda for the Lakers after Saturday’s practice by saying they needed to “embrace the game being hard,” fully cognizant of the fact they were drubbed by Denver in November, 105-79, and again in early February, 126-113.
The Lakers wanted the win for symbolism as much as anything, to show they still ruled the West. They lead Denver by 5 1/2 games.
Bryant wasn’t the star, scoring 14 points on woeful three-for-17 shooting, leaving Ron Artest and Odom as the central characters, one playing well on defense, the other doing it on offense.
Artest held Carmelo Anthony to an entirely forgettable game: 21 points on seven-for-19 shooting, with eight turnovers and six fouls.
Odom had 20 points and 12 rebounds, including nine and eight in the fourth quarter as the Lakers completed a comeback from an 11-point third-quarter deficit.
“There is a point in which you have to hold your ground,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. “And this is a point we had to make tonight.”
The Lakers had more rebounds than Denver (47-43), more blocked shots (six to two) and more steals (16-11).
Like their fans, the Lakers arrived late for the game, waiting until the midpoint of the third quarter to do something about it. They trailed, 64-53, with 5 minutes 12 seconds left in the third but went on a 42-25 surge to end the game.
Artest did a number on Anthony, allowing the Lakers to stick to their game plan of not double-teaming the Nuggets forward, who averages 29 points. He fouled out with 2:13 to play while jockeying for position in the high post with Artest, who responded to the call by pumping his fist three times.
“He earned his money tonight,” Bryant said. “That’s what he’s here for, is to defend and make life uncomfortable for the opposing scoring players. He just did a fantastic job.”
Odom was also a rainmaker, coming close to a double-double in the fourth quarter alone. “Lamar was awesome,” Bryant said.
The Nuggets came with attitude, as usual, Kenyon Martin loudly protesting an early foul by saying the referee was wrong: He didn’t foul Pau Gasol because the Lakers forward is a “soft” player.
Lakers fans, chided by Jackson on Friday for being too quiet in a bland win over Philadelphia, were in a feisty mood almost from the start Sunday, booing Chris “Birdman” Andersen when he checked into the game. Then they let J.R. Smith have it when he entered the game.
But Bryant was also on edge, picking up a technical foul after yelling at the referees late in the first quarter. He wanted a call after Smith reached around him to poke away an entry pass while Bryant posted him up.
Bryant still wasn’t quite himself in his fourth game back from a left ankle injury. He had only four points in the first half and shot two for eight in the fourth quarter. He finished with five turnovers but also had 12 assists.
“He had a poor night shooting, there’s no doubt about it,” Jackson said. “He’s just out of rhythm right now. It looks like he’s shooting the ball on the way up and sometimes he’s shooting it on the way down. It’s not right in rhythm. But the presence of putting him on the post, making him make plays out of that . . . that was what we had to have at that time and that’s the way he is. He found a way to help us win the game.”
Bryant was in a jovial mood afterward, saying, “Tonight was fun. It was a playoff-type intensity.”
That Odom came to play, and Artest came to defend, and the Lakers thoroughly outplayed Denver in the final 18 minutes was not lost on Gasol, who finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
His thoughts? Why can’t this happen all game, every game?
“We need to challenge people. Instead we are always being challenged,” he said. “That is the way I feel about it. . . . We rely so much on our quality and the depth of our team. We are not aggressive enough and we need to start challenging teams and imposing our will in games because we can. It’s unfortunate that sometimes we don’t do it. We are happy or content at winning games sometimes and not really playing to our potential.”
The Lakers will get plenty of chances to prove themselves in March with 11 road games and only four at home. A bit further down the line comes another proving point: April 8 in Denver.