Lakers guard Kobe Bryant gives a high-five to power forward Pau Gasol, who… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
Below are five things to take from the Lakers' 96-87 Game 7 win Saturday to the Denver Nuggets.
1. The Lakers' Game 7 victory felt empty. Underneath the frenetic cheers and the entertaining late-game plays masked a glaring reality. The Lakers incredibly underachieved this series and won't have a shot against Oklahoma City in the second round. That's why it's fitting their Game 7 effort provided a perfect microcosm of how they treated their first-round series with Denver. They opened the game with energy. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum immediately established an inside presence. Steve Blake became a pleasant wild-card surprise. Kobe Bryant willfully facilitated. The Lakers proved so unstoppable that it appeared their 16-point third-quarter lead would call for an easy night.
That didn't happen.
Instead, Bynum suddenly disappeared with his shot. The Lakers stopped running their offense with fluidity. Ty Lawson ran circles around the Lakers. And they began struggling at the free-throw line. The Lakers finally reverted back to their hustle in the fourth quarter and provided never-ending drama that enthralls their Hollywood crowd. No doubt, it was exciting and entertaining. It would've been admirable to see the Lakers play this way if it were in the NBA Finals. But the Lakers fought this way just to survive the first round. It remained too energy-expending and unnecessary.
2. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol looked engaged. Suddenly Gasol and Bynum went from a liability in Games 5 and 6 to more aggressive in Game 7. Gasol posted 23 points on nine-of-19 shooting and 17 rebounds by attacking the basket, finding his mid-range jumper and actually hustling for loose balls. After ending the first half with a putback, Gasol roared out to Bryant. Soon after connecting with Bynm on a high-to-low play, Gasol pumped his fist in delight. Moments after nailing a third-quarter fallaway jumper, Gasol immediately stood up and rushed back on defense. On one fourth-quarter sequence, Gasol relentessly tipped the ball back on four different attempts.
Meanwhile, Bynum posted 16 points on four-of-15 shooting, 18 rebounds and six blocks by establishing post position early in the shot clock, sprinting back on defense and closing on rotations. Bynum conveyed his enthusiasm when he and Gasol shared a hug after the two went high-to-low on one sequence. Even when his shot didn't fall in the second half, Bynum mostly remained aggressive on the boards and on defense.
Credit Bryant and Sessions for looking to establish the inside game. Attribute Metta World Peace's post presence that spaced the floor. Factor in Blake's sharp outside shooting. But the Lakers' post presence mostly flourished because Bynum and Gasol actually tried. It's a shame it took a seventh game and perhaps Magic Johnson suggesting the Lakers get rid of them should they fall in the first round. But it made the biggest difference in the game.
3. Steve Blake provided the perfect wild-card performance. Each time he saw an open look, Blake exuded confidence that he'd hit the shot. And he did. Blake's 19 points on five-of-six shooting from three-point range set a playoff-career high and fundamentally changed how fluid the Lakers ran their offense. Each of three-pointers came at a time when the Lakers nursed a slim lead. Blake stepped into his shots with effective rhythm and arch. And his efficiency didn't stop there.
Blake scrapped for loose balls. He drew a few charges. Blake played so well that Lakers Coach Mike Brown often featured him more minutes than Sessions. We've seen Blake do this before where he scored nine points in Game 1 and iced the contest in Game 4. But it still remains uncertain when Blake will provide it consistently. In a game that counted, though, Blake delivered.
4. World Peace made a difference in several areas. If World Peace had been around all series long, the Lakers wouldn't have fought Denver for seven games. World Peace provided everything across the board with 15 points, five rebounds and four steals. After going only one for six from the field in the first half, World Peace nailed consecutive three-point shots in the third quarter to establish a 60-46 cushion with 7:58 left. He then hit another trey to give the Lakers a 73-72 lead to open the fourth quarter. But World Peace provided the biggest value in facilitating and on defense. The Lakers often featured him on the high post so he could draw double-teams and then kick the ball to outside shooters. On defense, World Peace constantly cross-matched with Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, forcing plenty of loose balls and missed shots. It's good the Lakers didn't overly rely on World Peace, and, instead elevated their collective game. But he proved a nice luxury to have.
5. Bryant didn't have to carry the team. After single-handingly carrying the team on his back the past two games, Bryant gladly took a backseat with 17 points on seven-of-16 shooting. OK, there was the fall-away three-pointer that gave the Lakers a 92-84 lead with under a minute remaining. Otherwise, Bryant mostly facilitated by dropping eight dimes. For the first time in three games, Bryant felt fully comfortable doing that because he had a dependable supporting cast.
Mike Brown appreciates front-office support
Lakers' statement puts them at arm's length from Magic
Metta World Peace satisfied with conditioning heading into Game 7
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Five things to take from Lakers' 96-87 win over Denver Nuggets