Can’t say I saw that one coming. You probably can’t, either. Based on the Lakers’ pattern coming into tonight’s Game 6 at the Pepsi Center, pretty much everyone who follows the team expected to see a Game 7 on Sunday.
That, along with an early double-digit lead for Denver, a technical foul on Kobe Bryant and a whole lot of posturing in the fourth quarter from J.R. Smith, Chris “So what if I stole my nickname from Baby of the Cash Money Millionaires” Anderson and Kenyon Martin.
Instead the Lakers are the first team in the 2009 NBA Finals, and they showed that mental toughness and consistent energy (something the Lakers themselves have lacked throughout these playoffs until Wednesday) are more important than bravado and cheap shots. George Karl thought he had enough scoring punch to match the Lakers, and that as long as the Nuggets intimidated Los Angeles with physical play at times bordering on dirty, they’d be golden.
Unfortunately for Karl (who looked absolutely manic during the “Wired” segment ESPN showed at halftime from Denver’s locker room), the Nuggets showed they still lack the professionalism possessed by any true championship team.
Forget Anderson’s poseur act and sheep-like fans who grease their hair towards the sky (a practice that does nothing besides make white people look like filthy videogame characters and ruin the view for anyone sitting behind them at the game), or the constant jersey-pulling, tripping and slapping the Nuggets displayed throughout the series.
The Nuggets quit in front of their own fans, the absolute worst thing a team can do. Even the Warriors never do that. On the road, maybe — but you’d have to shoot Tony Randolph in the kneecap to get the Warriors to quit at home.
Besides Kenyon Martin, nobody in the starting lineup put forth any energy tonight. Chauncey Billups was awful. Nene was even worse, continually out of position against Pau Gasol and offensively ineffectual. Dahntay Jones was more worried about complaining to the referees than guarding Bryant or providing any help offensively.
The worst offender, however? Carmelo Anthony, who was actually benched by Karl in the second half for general lethargy. After pouting on the bench for a few minutes (remember, it was Anthony who Karl suspended for a game earlier in the season for refusing to come off the court when Karl tried to substitute for him), Anthony came in and tossed in a few outside jumpers.
It was too late.
The Lakers would have had a lead of 20-plus points at halftime had they not turned the ball over 11 times, with their suddnely suffocating defense and an offense that was even more efficient than in Game 5.
Of course, Denver’s awful defense was the main reason for that. Whenever Trevor Ariza has as many three’s as your team has blocked shots (3), you’re not exactly intimidating the opposition. Sure, you can grab Sasha Vujacic’s foot like Martin did, or smack Pau Gasol upside the head like Chauncey (who had a pretty mediocre series overall).
Bryant’s “decoy” role during Game 5 completely through Denver off-kilter, as they didn’t know whether to send an extra defender (a practice that led to 10 first quarter points for Ariza) or guard him one-on-one (which led to Kobe scoring 35 points overall). The Lakers played their best game of the year offensively, shooting 57% from the field, 9-for-16 from 3-point range and an amazing 24-for-24 from the line.
Still, a lot of that was helped by the Nuggets playing as if tonight’s contest was a preseason tilt in Bakersfield, instead of the most important home game in franchise history. L.A. came out strong at the start, the Nuggets were flat. In the second quarter the Lakers expanded their lead with little resistance from Denver, and after Karl’s frantic, desperate halftime speech the Nuggets reacted with the same sense of urgency to start the third quarter as a CalTrans worker on a 100-degree day.
The 27-point loss was what the Nuggets deserved. Watching the Birdman’s hair, J.R. Smith’s chicken-dance and Kenyon Martin’s act was a nice little sideshow, but their lack of heart tonight showed how truly ill-equipped they were to play for the championship. After the way this team has acted over the past few years, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised after all.