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Lakers Play with Pride and Heart, Win Game 7 (5.12.12)
If you just looked at the box score, you wouldn't understand what happened Saturday. You wouldn't understand how much effort both teams put into the game. You wouldn't understand the frantic nature of every loose ball. You wouldn't understand the nuances of the game, the deflected passes, the extra effort on the glass, the momentum swinging 3's. You just wouldn't.
The stats just don't provide justice to the best effort the Lakers have shown in nearly two years. Let me run off those stats.
I'll start with Kobe. Kobe went 7-16, 2-2 from deep, for 17 points, 1 rebound, 8 assists, 1 block, and 3 turnovers. Not that great of a line, right? Upon closer examination, this game highlighted the greatest amount of trust Kobe has shown with this team. There are only four guys on the Lakers who were a part of that title in '10, Kobe, Pau, Drew, Metta, that's it. Kobe put his full trust into his teammates and played facilitator all night. George Karl made sure that Denver doubled Kobe on almost every single touch. Kobe played possum, let the double come, surveyed the floor, and hit the open man. Kobe only registered 8 assists, but he was responsible for about 20 buckets. Kobe racked up numerous hockey assists, sending the pass before the assist. Kobe would kick out, the defense would rush that guy, and that guy would hit the open man on the weak side for the open jumper. Once the game got close, too close, in the fourth quarter, I'm sure Denver figured Kobe would start jacking up shots. Well, he didn't. He kept passing and the guys kept delivering, notably Steve Blake. The one time the Nuggets didn't double. Kobe drilled a game sealing 3 from the near wing with under a minute to play. Kobe played his finest facilitating game that I can recall since his playoff days in the early 2000's when he would feed Shaq. Impressive.
Then there's Metta World Peace. Metta's impact upon returning to the lineup from suspension was immeasurable. Metta went 5-15, 4-11 from deep, for 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 turnover. Not exactly the greatest offensive performance, but once again, his game needs further examination. Metta jacked up 3's, and this was a good thing. He wasn't exactly spot on, but Metta was a threat. I loved Ebanks and his contributions as a young player filling in for Metta, but whenever Ebanks played, the Nuggets could sink into the paint. Ebanks wouldn't shoot the open 3, so the Nuggets didn't worry about having to close out. The Nuggets packed the paint, doubled Bynum on and off the ball, waited for Ebanks to kick it to someone else, and then recovered to the threats. When Ebanks was out, Barnes would shoot the 3, but Barnes was atrocious. Barnes entered game seven with 12.5% shooting from deep, as he shot a miserable 3-24. With Barnes ice cold, and Ebanks a non threat from the perimeter, the Nuggets were able to double every single possession from the small forward position. The double man would usually be Gallinari, and Gallo's length was a problem on the double for Bynum. Bynum just couldn't get going. With the return of Metta, the floor opened up. Metta became a threat, and the lane opened up. Even more impressive was Metta's defensive play. Metta was spectacular. He was all over the court. He deflected numerous passes, he closed out hard, he forced contested jumpers, he stripped the ball, he got steals, he got blocks, he was a frantic but effective whirlwind on the defensive end.
Now onto the bigs. Andrew Bynum went 4-15 for 16 points, 18 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 6 blocks, and 1 turnover. Once again, those offensive numbers don't look great. However, Bynum was great on the offensive glass. Bynum corralled 9 offensive rebounds. He gave the Lakers numerous second chances. Bynum was also aggressive and forced numerous trips to the line, sinking 8-11 free throws. Although he didn't shoot efficiently, Bynum's performance was outstanding. Then there was his defense. In game six, Bynum was burned on the pick and roll all game. In game seven, Bynum put forth the effort and reaped the rewards. Bynum hedged hard on picks. Bynum contested jumpers after he was switched on the smalls. Bynum blocked 6 shots in the lane. Bynum altered another 5 shots in the lane. Bynum's "fake hustle" from game six was nowhere to be seen, game seven was all heart, all effort, true hustle.
Last but not least, Pau Gasol. Following his pathetic 1-10 for 3 points and 3 rebounds in game six, Pau was on the hot seat. During last year's postseason run, Pau received the largest amount of blame for his passive play against the Mavericks. Many believed that Pau's no show cost the Lakers the series, and so did the front office. They tried to trade him, but as we all know, David Stern stepped in and vetoed the trade for Chris Paul. Coming into game seven, Pau was averaging 11.1 points per game on 41% shooting, far below his season average of 17.4 on 50% shooting. Pau's listlessness needed to disappear, and it did. Pau opened the game with a tip in for the first LA bucket. This tip would foreshadow Pau's awesome night. Pau finished 9-19 for 23 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal, 4 blocks, and 1 turnover. Pau was phenomenal. His most impressive play featured six tips on the offensive glass before he finally got the ball to drop. Six tips! Pau kept missing the tip, but he kept battling, and he finally got the ball to drop. His 11 offensive rebounds were all heart. Pau showed why he is the most skilled big man in the NBA. An aggressive Pau Gasol is a top ten NBA player. Pau's performance highlights the full potential of the Lakers. When your third best player is a beast and can be the best player on the floor any given night, your team is pretty damn good. Pau just extended his stay in LA. If Pau had flamed out, he would surely have been traded this summer. I hope he plays with that fire for the rest of the playoffs.
The most essential contribution may have come from Steve Blake. Blake went 7-11, 5-6 from deep, for 19 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. Blake's deep shooting was exceptional. If Blake had bricked those 3's, who knows if Kobe would have kept passing out of the double team. Kobe routinely set up Blake for open 3's and Blake knocked them down. His spot on shooting allowed the Lakers to punish the Nuggets for sinking the paint and doubling on almost every possession. Blake was clutch. With Sessions struggling in the biggest game of his life, Blake came in and gave 30 amazing minutes. His calm demeanor, cold stone shooting, and competitive fire was essential to the victory. Steve Blake is seeming to find his inner Fisher. Big shots in big spots, and he has the trust of Kobe, something that cannot be overlooked. Kobe seems willing to hit Blake in any moment. Kobe knows that Blake has the guts to take the biggest shot of the game, especially after that game four dagger.
Let's get to the game. As Metta fired up an open shot from the near corner 3, Pau established great position as the ball went up. The ball bounced off the rim and Pau sealed Faried on his back and went up for the clean tip in. This was the first LA bucket, what a great start. The next possession, Kobe brought the ball up the far side and got to the far wing. Kobe looked to hit Bynum on the far block, but Mozgov was fronting Bynum. Kobe swung the ball to Pau at the top of the key, and Pau sent the lob over the top. Bynum gathered it at the far block, came down, and went up for the dunk. Bynum followed this by altering Gallo's drive in the lane. Bynum rotated well, forced Gallo into a floater, and Gallo air balled it. Then Sessions drove and kicked to an open Pau at the far mid wing. Pau sank the open 15ft jumper. Two defensive possessions later, Bynum showed just how engaged he was right off the bat. Lawson stood at the far wing and ran the pick and roll with Mozgov. Lawson used the pick to go left and get to the far mid wing. Bynum stepped out and contested the jumper. Lawson sank it, but Bynum's effort was much more impressive than what he did in games five and six. In those games, Bynum would sag off and let Lawson freely shoot any jumper he wanted. Kobe followed with his signature reverse pivot fadeaway. Kobe caught it at the near elbow, faced up, took one dribble to the middle, and revert spun for the turnaround fade. Kobe pumped, Afflalo didn't bite, so Kobe leaned to his left and hit the fading 13ft jumper. Two minutes later, Pau fed Bynum an easy layup at the rim following a pick and roll with Metta. Pau followed that with a beautiful turnaround jumper that solidified his promise of a big night. Then Metta hit his first 3 of the night. Metta held the ball at the far wing 3, and he looked to hit Kobe on the curl to the far mid wing. Gallo played off Metta, opting to sag and prevent the entry to Kobe, so Metta fired up the 3 and sank it. Two minutes later, Blake checked in and hit his first 3 of the night. Bynum was doubled at the far block, so he kicked it to Blake at the far wing 3 with 3 seconds on the shot clock. Blake went up without hesitation and drilled the 3. Bynum followed that with a great block in the lane on McGee. Then Bynum and Kobe closed out the quarter. Andre Miller ran the high pick and roll with McGee. Miller attacked right, Bynum stayed with him and swatted the layup at the rim with 7.6 on the clock. Kobe followed that up by blocking Al Harrington's jumper at the far mid wing, allowing the Lakers to close the quarter up 25-24.