It wasn't pretty, but the lack of style points will easily be forgotten in the Los Angeles Lakers' 92-88 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of their Western Conference first-round series. Probably the time this piece has been read. Ain't nobody complaining about a 3-1 series advantage heading back to L.A. Here are three takeaways from the game.
1. The Lakers did a nice job riding out chaos
To say the least, this wasn't the smoothest of games. Denver's altitude often brings out the worst in teams to begin with, but various elements combined to turn matters even more haywire. For starters, the referees fluctuated between allowing contact that would be drawn a foul in prison-ball and whistling fairly incidental stuff. (Nothing may have embodied this maddening inconsistency more than a sequence when Andrew Bynum was called for what might have been, technically speaking, a travel, but the foot shuffle was caused by JaVale McGee literally tumbling over Drew's shoulder on a flyby.) Because the refs often "let guys play," the Lakers' concerted effort to attack the basket resulted in a lot of misses unrewarded by free throws. The inability to earn charity stripe visits became even more problematic due to the Lakers' jumpers generally refusing to cooperate.
Adding to the madness, a woman randomly wandered onto the court, which meant stopping a possession as security handed matters.
The court adopted a circus atmosphere, and for the Lakers, it was much less amusing than one of those cars stuffed with 30 clowns.
However, I thought the Lakers did a nice job keeping their heads down, grinding away, and not letting the chaos get the best of them. That's not to say adversity was conquered through perfection. The offense grew periodically iso-centric and stagnant, with ball movement sometimes hitting a screeching halt. Dribbling took precedence over ball reversals or the extra pass, which led to costly turnovers converted into points by Denver. Kobe Bryant once again found easy shots difficult to come by, as his sub-.500 shooting in Denver this season continued. On a possession to possession basis, the Lakers just had a hard time manufacturing what they wanted.
Still, the Lakers didn't allow frustration to break their will, which can go a long way toward covering mistakes. They remained in relentless pursuit of a win, doing what they could to offset the ball not bouncing their way. The Lakers finally remembered to crash the defensive glass, limiting the Nuggets to 13 offensive boards, their lowest tally of the series. They kept attacking the rim even while receiving no fruits for their labor. The defense cranked up down the stretch, limiting Denver to just 17 points in the fourth quarter. And key passes late in the final frame from Kobe and Pau Gasol set up critical buckets from Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions.
The Lakers didn't make it look easy, but then again, the playoffs are supposed to be hard. That they didn't seem overly bothered by the difficulty was all the difference this evening.
2. Andrew Bynum showed up ready to play
Bynum has been nothing if not candid throughout the course of his young career, and while often refreshing in a sports world chock-full of by-the-numbers sound bites, it can lead to the center getting himself into hot water. The latest example came after Game 3, when Bynum admitted his ghost-like presence during the first half was the result of not being "ready" for the game. Not so coincidentally, the Lakers fell way behind during the opening 24 minutes, and expended far too much energy just trying to get back into the game. A poor performance from Drew can be excused, but never poor focus. Thus, a lot of eyeballs were watching Sunday to see if the young center would arrive with the proper mindset.
Well, the kid came through.
Whether gauged by his numbers (11 points, 4 rebounds, two blocks), his defensive awareness or general activity level, Bynum clearly wanted to make his presence felt from the outset. His commitment carried into the second half, and this focus was immediately demonstrated upon re-entering late in the fourth quarter after sitting over eight minutes in favor of Jordan Hill. Just 44 seconds into his run, Bynum connected on his first attempt, indicative of the way he kept his head in the action while sitting on the bench.
It was a nice bounce-back for a player who can make or break the Lakers in the playoffs purely through his effort.
3. Steve Blake and Jordan Hill made big contributions
In Game 3, the Lakers' reserves performed as bench players often do on the road, which is to say rather poorly. Neither Blake, Matt Barnes nor Hill did much of anything on Friday and against a team with Denver's depth, their lagging contributions were hard to overcome. For the Lakers to split their games in Denver, it was imperative at least one reserve bring something to the table.
As it turned out, two reserves opted to show up.
Blake, after an often-brutal three quarters of painfully hesitant play, exploded with eight points in the final frame. The first of Blake's two 3-pointers was launched to beat the buzzer, and having previously passed up several open shots, I think it helped being put in a position of having no choice but to let fly. The ball dropping seemed to boost his confidence, and from there, Blake came alive. The Terp, not exactly regarded as Dikembe Mutombo trapped in a guard's body, even came through with a chase-down block against Danilo Gallinari. Hopefully, the erratic guard can build on this clutch performance moving forward into the postseason.
As for Hill, 12 points and 11 rebounds marked his third double-double off the bench in this series, and he seemed to be at the right place at the right time to keep the Lakers' misses alive. Seven offensive rebounds were collected, and that hustle collecting loose balls often drew fouls and trips to the line. A two-handed dunk of a missed 3-pointer from Blake is classic highlight reel material, but Hill also helped tremendously doing the dirty work on both sides of the ball. There's just no mistaking the guy's energy, nor its effect.
Bold Play of the Game: Gasol leveling Gallinari using a screen heavy on "shoulder." Gallo is a Euro, which naturally will lead to accusations of flopping. But either way, there was nothing "Gasoft" about that pick. That Pau set up Sessions for a triple after laying out Denver's small forward made the sequence even cooler.