L.A. Lakers 92, at Denver 88 (L.A. Lakers lead 3-1)
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 107.8, Denver 103.8
That the Los Angeles Lakers won this game really should come as no great surprise. The difference between these two teams during the regular season largely came down to performance in close games. Where the Denver Nuggets were about average in this regard, the Lakers went 20-8 in games decided by five points or fewer. So it's only natural that two of the Lakers' three wins in this series have come by four points.
As compared to Game 2, which never felt as close as the final score, this game was tense throughout. Neither team led by more than seven points all evening while there were 18 ties and 16 lead changes. Nonetheless, even for this believer in the randomness of late-game situations, this felt like the Lakers' game to win throughout the fourth quarter. Indeed, the last lead change favored the Lakers, as Ramon Sessions untied the game with a wide-open three-pointer from the right baseline with 48 seconds remaining. Steve Blake followed with an open triple from the opposite corner on the Lakers' next possession and that was that.
These are the kind of games the Lakers always seem to win. Over the last 15 years, that's had a lot to do with one Kobe Bean Bryant, but Bryant was a bit player in the final outcome Sunday. He neither shot nor was the focal point of the Lakers' possessions in the final two minutes. Instead, L.A. played through Andrew Bynum and the pick-and-roll game. The latter play generated Sessions' three when Danilo Gallinari went down after a Pau Gasol screen, leaving four Nuggets to defend five Lakers. Bryant hit Gasol, who kicked to Sessions for the open look. (For the record, Gasol did commit an offensive foul, but not an exceptionally egregious one by all appearances besides Gallinari's reaction. Kenneth Faried got away with a more blatant moving pick earlier in the fourth quarter.)
More than that, this was about the Nuggets missing shots down the stretch. For all the talk of closers, George Karl's playcalls and Denver running its normal offense generated good looks. They just didn't go in. Al Harrington and Ty Lawson missed open three-pointers. Andre Miller couldn't convert a lob to the rim, and was a touch too early tipping in a Harrington miss, which resulted in an offensive basket inference call. Them's the breaks--it's just they always seem to go the Lakers' direction.
The real deciding factor in this game was the performance of the Lakers' much-maligned second unit. The Nuggets took a one-point lead to the final period, but by the time Kobe Bryant returned from his rest at the eight-minute mark, the Lakers held a two-point advantage. Blake found the range from the perimeter, giving the Lakers a needed scoring threat alongside starters Sessions and Gasol, and Jordan Hill delivered another terrific performance, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Hill stayed on the floor until the last media timeout, allowing Mike Brown to rest first Bynum and later Gasol, leaving them fresh for the stretch run.
Now, the Lakers are a home win away from getting a nice break before preparing to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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