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May 30, 2009
Playoff Prospectus
To the Finals

by Kevin Pelton

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L.A. Lakers 119, Denver 92 (L.A. Lakers win series 4-2)
Pace: 86.7
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 136.9, Denver 106.5

Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers we've expected showed up in the playoffs. Yes, that storyline is clichéd and obvious, but sometimes things are that clear. The Lakers reached a level they have not played at throughout their lightswitch postseason run, and while the Denver Nuggets did not play quite as well as you would hope in a home elimination game, there wasn't a professional team in the world who could have beaten the Lakers the way they played last night.

At its best, the triangle offense executed by the kind of talent the Lakers possess is a thing of beauty. That starts with crisp ball movement, and the Lakers got just that in Game Six, handing out 28 assists, 10 of them by Kobe Bryant and six more from Pau Gasol out of the post. During the second quarter, the Lakers' passing reached a level almost zen in nature: Of 11 buckets in the period, 10 of them were assisted. It was reminiscent of last postseason, when the Lakers torched a Denver defense that was at the time much more vulnerable to strong ball movement in the midst of a four-game sweep.

Point totals don't entirely do justice to how good the Lakers were on offense. They scored 136.9 points per 100 possessions, which is about as good as it gets for an individual game. Somehow, they were even far better than that in the second half. At halftime, I had them at 53 points in 43 possessions, which is a 123.3 Offensive Rating. In the second half, the Lakers had approximately 44 possessions and scored 66 points for a 150.0 Offensive Rating--three points for every two possessions. That's an unreal pace to maintain for 24 minutes, especially in a playoff setting.

All the passing in the world cannot produce assists without made shots, and the Lakers had those in spades as well. The big key was the small forward position. Trevor Ariza opened the game hot and dropped in three first-half three-pointers, finishing with 17 points. Foul trouble sent Ariza to the bench early in the third quarter and the Lakers never missed a beat with Luke Walton taking his spot. Not only did Walton contribute his understanding of the triangle but also 5-for-7 shooting, meaning the Lakers' small forwards combined for 27 points on just 16 shot attempts.

At the other forward spot, Lamar Odom put together his second straight strong outing (20 points on 7-for-12 shooting, eight rebounds, two three-pointers in as many attempts)--don't think for a second that it's a coincidence the Lakers won both of those games. In fact, we may have to reconsider whether the Lakers' "slump" since the middle part of the Houston series really was about Odom's back injury; he had not scored more than 10 points in any outing since badly bruising his back in a fall in Game Four at Houston before ripping off 39 combined points the last two games.

While the role players offered strong contributions, the Lakers' stars were their usual selves. It feels like burying the lede to not mention Bryant until now, outside of passing. While that was key to the Lakers' offense, so too was Bryant's ability to hit difficult midrange jumpers. He needed 20 shots, nine free-throw attempts and one turnover to score his 35 points and hand out the 10 assists. Meanwhile, Gasol made the right decision with the ball virtually every time and scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting.

For the Nuggets and their fans, there will be some "what if" scenarios to play out over the long offseason. Foremost amongst them will be Billups' long night. He had more turnovers (five) than field goals (two), missing five of his seven shot attempts. In Denver's final two losses, Billups combined for 22 points, and the Nuggets could reasonably have expected more production given the difficulty the Lakers have had defending point guards this season.

Carmelo Anthony hardly played terribly in Game Six, hitting 12 free throws to offset 6-for-17 shooting, but I was disappointed he was unable to make the Lakers pay for playing Walton so extensively. That matchup was a disaster for L.A. in Game Four, but Walton was able to hold his own this time; Anthony had five points on 1-for-13 shooting in the decisive third quarter where Walton stepped in for Ariza.

Ultimately, the result was hardly unexpected. If the Lakers played their game, there was no way the Nuggets or any other team in the Western Conference could match that level of play. Indeed, after three weeks of inconsistent play, the Lakers not only returned to form but surpassed it in Game Six. Considering the situation, the opponent and the qualitative brilliance, this might have been this Lakers group's best game together. As we head into the NBA Finals, that's a scary thought for whichever team emerges from the Eastern Conference Finals.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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