Game Notes: Nuggets at Lakers
All Billups, all the time.
by Graham Flashner
All week long, the Denver Nuggets talked the talk. George Karl said his team “knew what it took” to beat the Lakers. Chauncey Billups implied the Lakers weren’t better than last year. Karl said the Lakers missed Trevor Ariza. Friday night, the Nuggets were missing their most important player, Carmelo Anthony, but no matter. It was Shootout at the OK Corral Night at Staples Center, and the most feared gunslinger in the League, Kobe Bryant, got upstaged by a spectacular performance from Billups (career-high 39 points, nine three-pointers).
What does it take to beat the Lakers these days? For starters, shoot 57.1 percent from the field, and 68 percent from beyond the arc. That’s what Denver did in their 126-113 victory, which is why they’re now 2-0 vs. their chief rival, and why the gap between Nos. 1 and 2 in the West is closing fast.
It’s been pouring rain in L.A. all day, and everyone’s late. Karl and Chauncey Billups don’t arrive till an hour before tipoff. Had the Lakers know what was in store, they might’ve hired someone to hijack the Denver bus and take Billups to Disneyland.
The big question is the status of two of the most valuable left ankles in the NBA, Melo’s and Mamba’s. There’s no suspense regarding Anthony: word leaks out early he’s going to miss his seventh straight game (the Nuggets are 4-2 in his absence).
Turns out there’s no suspense with Kobe Bryant, either: he’s going to play. Kobe has played 234 straight games, and he’s not one to turn down a national television opportunity against the team that gave the Lakers its most humiliating loss on November 13, 105-79, a game in which the Lakers tallied 23 points in the second half. Granted, Pau Gasol sat that game out, but the possible damage to the Lakers’ psyche – and the psychological lift it gave the Nuggets – was done.
Bryant is in warrior mode, and he’s already shown that neither broken fingers nor back spasms nor, apparently, badly sprained ankles can keep him from his appointed rounds. Still, I have to wonder if he’s hurting the Lakers in the long run, by not allowing his body to heal properly, by possibly not being at full-strength when the Lakers will most need him.
I pose this question to Phil Jackson. He says: “There’s pain you play through, and pain that’s detrimental to your long-term well-begin, and Kobe measures that line better than any athlete I’ve ever seen.”
As far as the Nuggets go, Jackson refuses to concede they’re his biggest worry in the West, citing the Spurs, Suns, and Blazers as equally troubling. Maybe Jackson doesn’t want Denver in the Laker’s heads. Or maybe, he’s thinking about tomorrow night in Portland, where the Lakers have lost nine straight, making this perhaps the toughest back-to-back of the season.
Jackson says he’s not surprised by Mike Dunleavy’s removal as Clippers coach, and dodges the most insane rumor of the night—that the Clips have reached out to Isiah Thomas as Dunleavy’s successor. Are you kidding me? Even the Clippers wouldn’t sink that low. Really.
Down the hall, Nene is the only Denver player in the locker room, and a Brazilian TV crew is all over him. Outside, Karl talks in his usual straight-shooting style.
“We really need someone to step up and have a big night,” he says, referring to Melo’s absence. Karl talks confidently about how he’s given the Lakers “a lot more focus” and “extra study time” since the Nuggets’ last appearance here, when the Lakers beat them in Game 5, en route to knocking them out of the West Conference Finals.
Karl says “Ron Artest gives them a different face – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.” He doesn’t seem the least bit worried about facing L.A. short-handed.
Sure, Billups opens the game with two bombs from downtown – a sign of what’s to come – but Lakers fans don’t know that yet. It’s Bryant who runs wild, creating just enough space to pump in five long-range jumpers, silencing those who dare doubt his fortitude.
After a miserable 2-12, 5-point night against Charlotte on Wednesday, it should’ve been obvious that Bryant would come out intending to make a statement, as he always seems to do when people (like me) suggest he take a night, or a week, off.
24-13 Lakers, and everything seems to be going according to the script: without Melo, the Nuggets don’t appear to have enough scoring options; they’re leaning heavily on Billups, but Gasol and Andrew Bynum are toying with the Denver bigs, and Kobe’s on a serious roll.
And then – the Nuggets storm back with an 11-2 run to close the quarter, spreading the floor. Kobe has 13, but Billups has 14, and has made all four of his three-point shots.
A great finish to end the quarter: with seconds left, Lamar Odom throws half-court pass. Kobe, looking like Reggie Wayne, catches it in traffic, and throws up a desperation heave that Gasol catches in mid-air and stuffs in at the buzzer. 30-30.
Kobe, his left ankle heavily taped, moves with surprising agility – though his drives seem predictably hesitant. Still, he knows how to create space for his step-back jumpers, and he’s picked up right where he left off in the first quarter: a 21-footer to make it 38-34 Lakers; a three-point bomb less than a minute later to put the Lakers back up by 7, 43-36, and Kobe has 20 of those 43.
Monday night, when he passed Jerry West as the Lakers’ all-time scorer in Memphis, teammates complained he’d taken too many shots, but tonight, he’s executing with brutal efficiency: his 20 points have come on a mere 10 shots, of which he’s made eight.
Funny thing, though: the Nuggets refuse to go away. Nene spins a couple of shots in over Bynum; “Birdman” Chris Andersen hits all three of his shots, and the Nuggets are hanging right in.
Towards the end of the quarter, Billups takes a fall, and remains down on the court, holding HIS tender ankle. If he goes out, forget it. Fortunately, Billups gets up, shakes it off, and returns to the court.
Nuggets reach the half down only 64-59. Still, they’ve had to shoot the lights out just to stat in it: six of eight from downtown, 54 percent, overall, and that can’t last, right?
It begins well enough for the Lakers: after a Gasol hook and an Artest putback, they extend their lead to nine, 68-59.
Billups scores five straight, but the Lakers answer. It stays like that for the next six minutes.
Under the basket, Artest is mugged from behind by Joey Graham, who’s enjoying a surfeit of minutes in Melo’s absence. Ron Ron whirls and cocks his fist for a roundhouse right. There’s a collective gasp from the sellout crowd. The old Artest throws that punch, and mayhem ensues. The new, improved Artest pulls the punch, and settles for palming Graham’s face as if it were a basketball. Artest is T’d up, but it could’ve been worse. A whole lot worse.
Bryant hits crazy turnaround stepback fadeaway bank shot. You think it could still be his night, but then he tries to finish a drive and comes down awkwardly on the ankle, the first time he’s looked gimpy all night. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the game.
It’s 83-75 Lakers, and two things happen to permanently alter the course of the game: Bryant picks up his fourth foul. And Billups goes unconscious. Sasha Vujacic attempts to cover him, but forget it.
Aah… a 27-foot three from the right side.
Ooh… he buries another, 25 feet out, Vujacic somehow leaving him space.
Here’s Billups, a good foot-and-a-half behind the circle. He’s not really going to shoot that – oh yes he is. It’s goooood.
84-83 Nuggets, but he’s not quite finished. With 1:57 to go, he nails another. That’s four consecutive threes, turning an 8-point deficit into a 2-point lead.
At 87-all, Artest belatedly switches on to Billups; it’s one of the few times he doesn’t get a shot off. Ty Lawson, however, drains a three.
When the dust settles, Billups has rung up 21 points in the quarter, two shy of the record for points scored against the Lakers in one quarter, held by Wilt Chamberlain.
And the Nuggets lead by five.
This is normally Kobe time, but Bryant’s on the bench with four fouls. Still, Billups is resting on the bench as well. Surely, the worst has passed for the Lakers.
Enter JR Smith and Lawson. The two fleet Nugget guards give the Lakers fits, running through and over the Lakers speedsters, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown.
It’s an event when someone misses a shot. Between them, they score the Nuggets’ first 12 points of the quarter, and by that time, the Lakers have been stunned into submission, trailing 108-97.
It’s easy to say, where’s the Lakers defense, particularly Artest; wasn’t he brought in to prevent nights like this? Except that Artest can’t be expected to shut down smaller, quicker guards. Artest was brought in to contain guys like Melo and LeBron. One could argue, however, that Ariza’s speed and length might’ve slowed Billups or Smith, and prevented them from getting into a zone. It doesn’t do much good now.
Rather than try to patiently work their way back in game, the Lakers panic, tossing up shots early in the clock, trying to match Denver’s three-point precision. Even Bryant’s return can’t stem the tide – he’s cold off the bench, and that 23-point first half is long gone.
Kobe looks hurt. Favoring the ankle, he finishes one drive off-balance and tumbling into the courtside row of photographers.
With 2:20 left, the subdued crowd rallies for one last time. Nene fouls out, leaving to the gleeful strains of “Hit the road, Jack”. Gasol makes one of two free throws. The lead is down to seven, 115-108.
But with the Lakers still afraid of Billups, others step in. Aaron Afflalo bombs one from the corner, and with a minute to go, Smith adds the dagger, a (what else?) three-ball that pushes the lead to 11.
The Nuggets finish 15-22 from beyond the arc; the Lakers, 8-26. The Lakers have killed the Nuggets off the offensive glass, 18-8, but it doesn’t matter. The Nuggets’ relentless attack proves too much. Billups (39) and Smith (27) combine for 66 points on 23-37 shooting.
“They really put a rush on us in that third quarter,” says Phil Jackson. “We never really recovered.” Jackson dismisses a question about Melo’s absence. “I’m not going to berate my team,” he says, then lists a few things his team did right, like rebounding, and… and… well, there’s not much you can say when the other guys can’t miss.
“He was shooting considerably beyond the line,” Jackson says of Billups. “I’m just glad that didn’t happen in a playoff game.”
In a quiet Lakers locker room, players clear out faster than Shannon Brown on a breakaway. Kobe, normally the last player to talk, goes first this time, and while I am not there to see it, I’m told he gave mostly terse one-word answers, admitted he wasn’t as explosive as he wanted, and said that the Nuggets have every right to feel they’re the better team at the moment.
George Karl says the offensive fireworks reminded him of an old ABA game, and calls Billups’ third quarter explosion “a pleasure to be a part of.”
In a noisy Denver locker room, Kenyon Martin laughingly recalls how he convinced Karl not to sub for Billups midway through the third. “I said, don’t you take him out. They can’t stop him – don’t you stop him.”
JR Smith says the three-pointers were not part of the game plan, which was to attack. “ I was wondering what Coach was gonna say,” Smith says. “Lucky they went in.” Smith is asked if Billups should be the favorite in next week’s three-point shooting contest at the All-Star Game. “Hell yes,” he says.
Finally, the man of the hour takes a seat in front of the microphones. “I got some good looks, and they gave me space to get my shots off,” says Billups. “When you get it going like that, you feel like you can’t miss. And once J.R. got going, I felt like, now I can facilitate, and that turned the game.”
And what does beating the Lakers twice do for Denver’s self-esteem? You’ve always got to be confident,” Billups says. “There’s a lot of people that can say it, but until you can do it, you’ve got to get that confidence from the right place. They’re the world champs. But we feel that we can compete. We know we match up pretty decently with them.”