|Fast Breaks: Lakers vs. Nuggets|
|By Mark Haubner, Special to SI.com|
Buoyed by a return to the Mile High City, the Denver Nuggets hustled their way to a 99-84 Game 3 win over the Lakers on Friday, pulling within 2-1 in their first-round series. Ty Lawson led a huge first-half run which knocked the Lakers back on their heels, and the Nuggets' bigs competed hard all night to offset the Lakers' vaunted Pau Gasol-Andrew Bynum combo, after being worked over in the first two games.
The key stretch in Game 3 proved to be a monster 28-2 Denver run spanning about eight minutes between the first and second quarters, turning a 12-10 deficit into a 38-14 lead for the Nuggets. Ty Lawson was everywhere for Denver during this run, accounting for 23 of the 28 points via 13 points and four assists. No matter if it was via pick-and-roll, isolation one-on-ones, or out on the fast break, Lawson was able to get to the basket and finish at will, a one-man gang in Tony Parker-esque style.
Los Angeles, which never trailed in the first two games, was left to play catch-up for the bulk of Game 3. While the Lakers made a few runs and got as close as five, they never could fully dig themselves out of that first-half hole.
George Karl's major lineup change was demoting Kosta Koufos from starting center to DNP-coach's decision after Koufos delivered just two points and a minus-21 in 24 minutes in the first two games combined. In his stead, recurring NBA punchline JaVale McGee stepped up with the game of his young career, stuffing the box score with 16 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks, two assists, two steals and a plus-30 in 28 minutes.
McGee scored on a variety of elastic runners, scoops and hooks around the basket, providing a tantalizing glimpse of how effective he can be if he's able to complement his sensational athleticism with some semblance of focus. Maybe the withering stares from McGee's mother, basketball Hall of Famer Pam McGee, who was sitting courtside, helped keep the young big man in line in Game 3.
Bynum had been a major force against the Nuggets in both the regular season and playoffs, averaging 22.6 points and 11.5 rebounds on 65 percent shooting in the first six meetings. But in Game 3, he was nowhere to be found in the first half, with zero points and three rebounds, plus very passive pick-and-roll defense, which played a role in allowing Lawson to run wild around the rim. The Nuggets surprisingly single-covered Bynum in the third quarter, and the big man responded with a 12-point quarter which got the Lakers back in the game.
Denver had more success against Bynum in the fourth with its most aggressive double teams of the night, and all told, the Lakers bigs were outhustled inside. McGee and rookie Kenneth Faried (12 points, 15 rebounds) led Denver to a 54-44 rebounding edge, and overall, the combined output of McGee and Faried (28 points, 30 rebounds) was comparable to that of Bynum and Gasol (34 points, 19 rebounds).
The Nuggets were able to keep Kobe Bryant out of the lane and the Lakers superstar never could find his shooting range, going 7-for-23 from the floor, including 3-for-10 on three-pointers. Kobe had sealed Game 2 with a series of tough outside shots, but Denver kept him bottled up at crunch time in Game 3. Bryant did not score from the 7:22 mark of the third quarter until the 2:31 mark of the fourth. Overall, the Lakers as a team settled for long jumpers too often throughout the night, other than their concerted effort to get the ball inside to Bynum in the third.
The repercussions of Metta World Peace's absence were felt throughout the Lakers' rotation on Friday. Small-forward replacements Devin Ebanks and Matt Barnes were ineffective. L.A. was forced to turn to Steve Blake in a small backcourt with Ramon Sessions that simply can't compete with Denver's point-guard pairing of Lawson and Andre Miller, who were in the lineup together to spark the huge first-half run.
On the season, Denver ranked first in bench scoring and L.A. was last, and the Nuggets' superior depth was a major factor in Game 3, as they won the battle of the bench by a staggering count of 39-9. Blake, in particular, continued his dreadful postseason play.