For the first time in the conference finals, Lakers look like a No. 1 seed
From Kobe to Lamar Odom to Pau Gasol, the Lakers were nearly flawless
The Nuggets can't win if they don't make jumpers, which happened in Game 5
The officiating has flustered the Nuggets, and that could doom them
1. L.A. probably can't play much better than this.
"I thought we played our best game tonight," said Lamar Odom. Sure, if you're into nitpicking, you can probably find something to complain about. Sasha Vujacic (three points in three minutes) was again a non-factor, Luke Walton continues to look like a cone Carmelo Anthony weaves around on his way to the basket, and once again L.A. lost the battle of the boards.
But you have to dig deep if you want to criticize the Lakers after this one. Kobe Bryant (22 points on 13 shots and a team-high eight assists) played the role of quarterback to perfection. Odom (19 points, 14 rebounds) was the best player off the bench for either team while battling a back injury that would make Larry Bird cringe. Pau Gasol (14 points, 10 rebounds) made brilliant decisions off double teams and quietly facilitated large chunks of the offense.
Lump in Derek Fisher (12 points) being a factor for the first time all series, a surprising spark from forgotten reserve Shannon Brown (six points) and a 21-3 run between the third and fourth quarters, and for the first time all series the Lakers looked like the conference's top seed.
2. The Nuggets' success hinges on their ability to make jump shots.
Denver has low-post options. Really. Anthony is a beast when he gets the ball in deep, and Chauncey Billups calls Nene the Nuggets' most efficient player. It only looks like they don't because the Nuggets hoist jumpers like they are competing in a barroom game of Pop-A-Shot. And when those shots aren't falling (and they weren't Wednesday night), the Nuggets are in trouble. Denver shot 38.6 percent in Game 5, with Anthony (9-of-23), J.R. Smith (3-of-13) and Dahntay Jones (2-of-8) the primary culprits. If that troika doesn't shoot at or near 50 percent in Game 6, this series is over.
3. The refereeing wasn't nearly as bad as Denver made it out to be.
On Monday, Phil Jackson voiced his frustration over the way this series was being officiated. On Wednesday, it was George Karl's turn.
"I thought they got the benefit of the whistle," Karl said. "It was a very difficult whistle to play, no question about that. Every player in my locker room is frustrated, from guards to big men."
A particular source of frustration for Karl was the officiating of Gasol, who was called for just one foul in 45 minutes.
"Gasol goes after at least 20 jump shots, 20 shots to the rim and gets one foul," Karl said. "Our big guys have 16. I don't know. Nene has six fouls; three or four of them don't exist."
Karl's frustration is understandable and certainly the case can be made that Gasol hacked more than one player, but overall the officiating was relatively even. Anthony (12-of-13) went to the line more than Bryant (9-of-10), and as a team the Lakers shot five more free throws (35-30) than Denver. It seemed like in the fourth quarter the referees decided to put their whistles in their pockets, but the physical play was being allowed on both ends. It was hardly one-sided.
4. The Nuggets' lack of composure may ultimately doom them.
Scribbled in large letters on the white board in the Nuggets' locker room were the words "keep composure." Good advice for a team that has racked up six technical fouls in the last three games. But instead of learning from their mistakes, the Nuggets continue to make them. Chris Andersen was tagged with a T early in the fourth quarter (a double technical with Brown) and Nene was hit 10 seconds later for arguing a foul call. It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, but the Nuggets can't keep giving points away. Considering how tight the series has been, Game 6 figures to come down to one or two possessions. A few points could swing the game either way.
5. This is where Billups needs to step up.
All of us (myself included) have praised Billups for breathing life into the Nuggets this season. But with Denver facing elimination for the first time, Billups needs to provide the type of leadership for which he has been given credit. There will be an uncomfortable tension when the Nuggets take the floor Friday, the kind of anxiety that only comes when your season is on the line. Billups must calm his teammates and establish a rhythm early. Players can't stress over every turnover and get down on themselves after every missed shot. The Lakers are all too familiar with what it takes to close out a series and have the best finisher in the game in Bryant. They will be looking for the kill. It will be incumbent on Billups to prepare his team for that.