|Fast Breaks: Lakers vs. Nuggets|
|By Mark Haubner, Special to SI.com|
The Los Angeles Lakers out-executed the Denver Nuggets down the stretch to claim a 92-88 road win at the Pepsi Center on Sunday, taking a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round series. Game 4 wasn't pretty, but it was a hard-fought, back-and-forth affair that featured 18 lead changes. The Lakers sealed it in the final minute, breaking an 86-86 tie with consecutive threes by a pair of unlikely closers in Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake.
With the Lakers having the three best players in the series, it's critical for Denver's depth to crush L.A.'s supporting cast, as in Game 3, when the Nuggets had a 39-9 edge in bench scoring. Considering that Denver led the league in bench scoring and L.A. was dead last, keeping that bench margin to 39-26 (in Denver's favor) in Game 4 was essentially a victory for the Lakers.
Indeed, the key players for the Lakers in Game 4 might well have been reserves Jordan Hill and Steve Blake. With 12 points and 11 rebounds (including seven offensive boards) in 23 minutes, Hill out-Manimaled energetic Nuggets rookie Kenneth Faried, who had just six and seven. It was the second double-double of the series for Hill, who's averaging over nine rebounds in just 20.5 minutes per game.
After two horrendous games, Blake turned it around in Game 4, especially with a huge fourth quarter in which he contributed eight points and an unlikely blocked shot on a Danilo Gallinari fast break. Sessions was another supporting-cast member who stepped up. Not only did Sessions and Blake hit the game-sealing threes, but they also knocked down back-to back treys early in the fourth to help the Lakers hold the fort during a dangerous stretch with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum on the bench.
The Lakers turned things around after getting pounded on the glass in Game 3. L.A. outrebounded Denver 48-38 on Sunday, including 19 offensive rebounds that led to 28 second-chance points. Despite crashing the boards, the Lakers also managed to get back on defense, limiting the Nuggets to 18 fast-break points, their lowest total in the series (after averaging 22.7 in the first three games). The effort was there for the Lakers in Game 4.
After settling for too many jumpers last game, the Lakers made a concerted effort to attack the paint, either via penetration or post up, in Game 4. Andrew Bynum had a quietly efficient night, with 19 points, seven rebounds and three blocks on 8-for-12 shooting, though he did struggle at times with Denver's hard double teams. Bynum continues to feast when JaVale McGee is on the bench. For the series, Bynum is plus-39 (plus-9 in Game 4) when McGee is out, and minus-25 (minus-6) when JaVale's on the floor. Bynum hit a big jump hook late in the fourth to put the Lakers up 84-82, right after McGee needed a quick break after playing himself to exhaustion.
Kobe Bryant had a subpar game overall, shooting just 10 of 25 from the field and committing five turnovers, but he was still a key playmaker down the stretch, drawing the defense and dishing to Blake for the clinching three. Similarly, Pau Gasol (who had a solid all-around game with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists) made a heady kick-out to Sessions on the prior three.
Once again, the Nuggets seemed to be able to attack the Lakers' passive pick-and-roll defense and get into the paint repeatedly, but couldn't convert consistently. Especially problematic was Denver's continued inability to knock down open threes after they were able to break down the Lakers' D. The Nuggets were just 3 of 19 (16 percent) on threes in Game 4, and are just 17 of 68 (25 percent) for the series. That inability to get a big three-pointer has been a killer in four-point losses in Games 2 and 4.
Gallinari stepped up with 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting, after entering Game 4 with a 34.9 field-goal percentage. But Arron Afflalo, Denver's second-leading scorer during the season, had another quiet game, with just six points. Perhaps worn down by covering Bryant on the other end, Afflalo has averaged just nine points in the series, after tallying 15 per game on the season. He's also made just 2 of 11 threes after hitting 40 percent of them during the regular season.