- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- Close-out games in a playoff series have a way of turning paupers into princes overnight.
There was the 37-year-old Steve Kerr, playing in his 15th and final season for the San Antonio Spurs when he came off the bench to hit all of his shots in Game 6 of the 2003 Western Conference finals against the Dallas Mavericks, going 4-for-4 on 3-pointers and scoring 12 points, which happened to be the Spurs' margin of victory, 90-78, that night. He didn't even play in Game 5.
There was the 21-year-old Cleveland rookie Daniel Gibson pouring in 31 points, going 7-for-9 from the field and 5-for-5 on 3-pointers, in the Cavs' upset special over the favored Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. He wasn't even drafted in the first round.
Then there was Steve Blake on Saturday, his career arc somewhere in the middle of where Kerr's and Gibson's were when they had their nights as shooting stars, but whose unexpected boost had just as much to do with the outcome of his team's crucial game.
The 32-year-old, in his ninth season, shot the Lakers into the second round, scoring a career-playoff high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field and 5-for-6 shooting on 3-pointers in Los Angeles' 96-87 Game 7 win over the Denver Nuggets.
(His fifth 3-pointer, a falling-down dagger from the corner with 5:51 remaining in the fourth quarter to put L.A. up by five also earned its own special place among clutch corner shots in Lakers lore, joining Derek Fisher's 0.4 shot and Allen Iverson's triple in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals when he stepped over Ty Lue.)
"He had such a nice rhythm going that every time it left his hands, for me, I thought it was going in," said Lakers coach Mike Brown. "I felt like every time he let that bad boy go, it didn’t matter where he was because for the most part he was open and it was going in."
He was amazingly, improbably, the Lakers' ace in the hole all series long. When L.A. won Game 1 after building a 13-point first quarter lead, it was Blake who had all nine of his points in that quarter off of three 3-pointers. When the Lakers stole Game 4 on the road to go up 3-1 in the series, it was Blake who scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter including a triple that doubled his team's lead from three to six with less than a minute remaining. And when the Lakers needed to play as if their lives depended on it in Game 7, Blake jump-started them coming off the bench.
"I can’t lie, it feels great," Blake said after the game, just as improbably speaking to reporters in the interview room rather than the locker room, achieving what ESPN.com's J.A. Adande has dubbed a "Podium Game."
"It’s a good feeling to make shots and help your team win. That’s really what I’m all about. Whether it’s taking charges or finding the open man, it doesn’t matter if I get any shots as long as we win the game, but the way Denver was playing, they really were giving us the open shots and taking away our scorers."
Denver stuck to its game plan to double Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant at all costs and live with the open looks it was giving up to the rest of the Lakers. You couldn't blame George Karl's logic, considering that Matt Barnes was just 3-for-25 from 3 for the series and Ramon Sessions went just 4-for-21 but all it took was one guy to make shots to blow that up.
"I hate Steve Blake tonight," Karl said after the game, his 61st birthday ruined by his former point guard who he coached in 2006-07 in Denver. "But, I loved him as a player. I loved him when we had him."
Blake shot 14-for-30 from beyond the arc in the series and his teammates loved him hitting his open looks.
"It’s a huge lift because then you’re making them pay for the silly defense they’re playing," said Bynum who became more than a little frustrated with the double teams he saw all series as Denver sat in his lap and dared L.A. to strike from the outside.
As Bynum became frustrated with double teams, Bryant in turn became frustrated with Bynum and Gasol for not playing up to their potential as L.A. lost Games 5 and 6 to even the series at 3-3, their commanding 3-1 series lead because of Blake's heroics completely wiped out.
Bryant said after the Lakers' embarrassing 17-point loss in Game 6 that the only teammate's toughness he could rely on game-in and game-out was Metta World Peace's, not-so-subtly calling out Bynum and Gasol through omission.
But there was another player that Bryant didn't mention who he actually believed matched World Peace's intensity on a consistent basis.
"He’s just an insanely competitive individual," Bryant said. "So, yeah, I knew in Game 7 he’d be ready for that challenge, he’d answer the bell and he did."
Not only did he come ready for Game 7, but he helped Gasol get to a place to be ready to put up 23 points and 17 rebounds after just three and three in Game 6 by working with him in two-man drills before practice Friday.
"We really haven’t done that (before)," Blake told ESPNLosAngeles.com after the game. "Pau was out there, wanted to get some extra work and whenever I have a teammate that’s doing that, I love to get involved and help them out and help myself out at the same time."
Now Blake just wants a little more help from his teammates adding a championship to his collection that already includes two Florida state titles from high school and winning the 2002 NCAA tournament at Maryland.
"I got to get an NBA championship," Blake said. "I got to finish the three-peat. I got to get them all and this is my best chance to do it right now."
He already carved his place in basketball history for one night. Why not reach for more?
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.