Nuggets Applying Pressure on Kobe, Lakers
It would be easy to convince yourself that the Los Angeles Lakers should emerge victorious in the Western Conference Finals based on their 65-win season and the presence of the best closer in the game. But the Denver Nuggets' 120-101 victory in Game 4 on Monday complicates things immensely and may have been more emblematic of what's to come in the next two or three games.
The Lakers are tired and banged up, and very lucky to be tied 2-2. They have won on talent most of this season, but they haven't exactly been the better team in their wins against Denver. The Nuggets also have talent but they just haven't always played smart.
The two bad inbounds passes and the technical foul point giveaway and awful three-point shooting in Game 3, all showed how Denver can be its own worst enemy sometimes. Even in the Nuggets' win last night, they were teetering on the edge as J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin picked up three unnecessary technicals in the fourth quarter, allowing the Lakers to make the game closer than it needed to be -- until Smith dropped the hammer with two crushing three-pointers.
"They just kicked our [tails]," Kobe Bryant said afterward. "It's not like we can turn it on, turn it off. They whooped us, period. They whooped us on the glass. They whooped us to loose balls. They played harder and better, period."
But the Nuggets are capable of playing at that pace again. Martin (15 rebounds), Chris Andersen (14 rebounds) and Nene (13 rebounds) combined to have more rebounds than the Lakers (40) and became the first trio with at least 13 rebounds apiece in 15 years. It's also encouraging for them that they were able to destroy the Lakers without having a big night from Anthony, who battled the flu and an off jumper and scored just 15 points. The Lakers have won only once this postseason without Bryant scoring at least 24 points.
And, while the Nuggets can run, the Lakers might not be able to get into a foot race with anybody right now. Trevor Ariza is really aching because of a sore groin and hip injury that had him walking out of the arena as if he had ridden a horse for three hours on Saturday. After getting his second late-game steal in Game 3, Ariza could contribute only three points in Game 4, his lowest scoring output of his first real postseason.
Hard to remember, but Lamar Odom averaged 17.8 points and 11 rebounds in the first round against Utah. His production has declined since suffering a bruised lower back in Game 4 against Houston. After scoring in double figures in six of his first eight games, he has done so in only two of his past eight. Odom had just five points and eight rebounds last night. He has had just one game with double-digit rebounds after the fall.
That only increases the burden on Bryant, who made the rare admission of fatigue after scoring 41 points in Game 3. He had his fourth consecutive 30-point game with another 34 on Monday and is averaging 36.8 points against Denver. Last season in the Western Conference Finals, Bryant only had two games with 30 or more points and the Lakers beat San Antonio in five games.
Pau Gasol had his seventh consecutive double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Andrew Bynum added 14 points, but the Lakers cannot win this series expecting Bryant to bail them out with 40-point games. Then again, that might be the only way.
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