As the old saying goes, "It's tough to play 41 average-to-bad minutes and seven good ones and still expect to win a playoff game in the NBA."
It's not a saying that necessarily gets used a lot, but seems totally applicable for Tuesday's Game 5, in which the Los Angeles Lakers slept through almost all of the first half, stirred occasionally in the third quarter, then finally woke up late in the fourth, staging a furious rally only to fall short. The comeback, along with Kobe Bryant's 43 points, might overshadow the awful effort coming before it, but it shouldn't.
Credit the Nuggets for playing like their season was on the line. It was, after all. But the Lakers clearly didn't match the intensity There will be a Game 6 in Denver on Thursday night.
Here are five takeaways ...
1. The Lakers came out flat, and didn't find energy or direction until late.
Maybe, as Andrew Bynum said Monday afternoon, closeout games really are "kinda easy." But they're not that easy. The Lakers were very sloppy, and short on energy out of the gate. Kenneth Faried took advantage, repeatedly beating L.A. up the court in transition, one time off a missed free throw, something very high up on the list of basketball sins. He had eight points on four shots, almost entirely thanks to outhustling the Lakers. This would be a theme. In the half court, the Lakers were weak defending the rim. Offensively, they settled for and then missed too many jumpers, showing very little patience working the ball inside out. Bryant was aggressive working his way into the paint, but did a lot of dribbling and probing in the process, periodically limiting ball movement. He missed seven of his 10 shots in the quarter, one in which the Lakers shot only 34.6 percent.
Things tightened up in the second quarter defensively, but the offense couldn't find a groove. Denver flooded the post with bodies, and aggressively worked to deny entry passes. In response, the Lakers generally stood still and offered little snap with ball and body movement. Not much weakside cutting or off-ball action. There were exceptions -- Matt Barnes, for example, made some great cuts to the rack, and as team the Lakers hit the offensive glass hard -- but overall the product was underwhelming. Sitting on 35 points with three minutes left in the first half (in which they shot a robust 33 percent) the Lakers were fortunate not to find themselves in a hole too deep to climb out of.
Not that it mattered. In the second half, the effort and energy improved somewhat -- short of rolling futons to center court and watching a screening of "My Dinner With Andre," it was impossible for it not to -- and over the final few minutes it was outstanding, but by then it was too late. The Nuggets had just enough to get out of Staples with a win.
2. The inability to hit an outside shot is hurting the Lakers in a big way.
The Lakers aren't a good 3-point shooting team. This we knew coming into the postseason.
But at this point in the series, it's fair to say the perimeter game has been a total disaster. The Lakers entered Game 5 shooting 25.7 percent from beyond the arc, and Tuesday night the lack of true aim completely sabotaged the offense until the late Kobe-driven, triple-laden comeback attempt. For most of the game, Denver didn't even bother guarding the perimeter, instead choosing to bracket post players (generally Bynum) in the paint and dare guys to hit open jumpers. Why not? The strategy worked well, as the Lakers missed open shot after open shot. Barnes, while active at the rim, continued his series-long slump from everywhere else, missing five of his six shots from downtown, most of them completely unguarded. One late in the third fell maybe eight inches short of the rim.
Kobe missed three of his first four, and as a team the Lakers were 2-of-12 heading into the fourth quarter, before rallying to finish a more respectable 9-of-24 (37.5 percent).
They weren't much more successful from midrange, either, and without any ability to keep the Nuggets honest defensively, any big man touching the ball in the paint (whether on the block or the elbow) found himself surrounded by blue jerseys.
Not that the Lakers did themselves any favors. The ball movement was poor, rarely moving from strong to weak or forcing the Nuggets to rotate. Nor were they particularly creative in finding ways to spring players on the post, or varying the looks given to Denver. Generally, Bynum went down to the block, maybe got a pass or maybe not, kicked it out off the double, and that was it. Maybe there was a repost, maybe not.
Add that to an extraordinary amount of shots missed at the rim, particularly in the first half, and it's easy to see why the Lakers found themselves feverishly chasing points late in the fourth.
3. Kobe Bryant never stopped working.
Saw a great Tweet come through our feed Tuesday night, noting there are games in which Kobe's teammates seem bent on making him look selfish. For much of Tuesday's game, that was an apt description of L.A.'s offense. Bryant took a lot of shots and spent a ton of time forcing the issue, but what alternative was there? Early, Bryant did his best to avoid settling for jump shots, looking for creases through the paint and paths to the bucket. By halftime, he'd hit only five of his 13 shots, but made his way to the line nine times. He started the third quarter with a steal, eventually leading to a 22-footer pulling the Lakers within four, and heading into the fourth had pulled his field goal percentage up near 50 percent.
In the fourth, Bryant finally managed to get the lid off the rim, drilling a 3-pointer at the 4:42 mark, then three more between the 2:33 and :59 marks, yanking the Lakers back into the game.
The last two didn't fall, but it's hard to be critical of the guy who goes for 43/6/5 with a pair of steals on a night when his teammates brought very little to the table until the last seven minutes of the game.
4. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol were no shows until late.
I'll cut both some slack on the offensive end, since there wasn't much room to operate inside, but overall neither guy brought much to the table. Bynum clearly grew frustrated with the direction of the offense, and allowed it to hurt him at the other end, where he was thoroughly outworked and outplayed by JaVale McGee. Gasol just seemed to drift at both ends, trying to find a place to assert himself and never really succeeding. Both had isolated good moments and both posted respectable numbers on the glass, but overall the other two-thirds of L.A.'s Big Three weren't big enough, and didn't get the help from floor spacers to change their fortunes.
5. The Wild Cards weren't.
Credit Jordan Hill for bringing his typical level of energy, but like his teammates he struggled defensively, and missed all four of his shots. Blake finished with a decent line -- eight points, six boards, four dimes -- but most of the points came late, while early he again seemed to play with hesitation. Barnes led the bench with 11 points, but needed 15 shots to get there.