EVERY CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM has a moment during its run when the lightbulb goes on and everything begins to make sense. For L.A., that moment came just before halftime of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
With the series tied at two and the Lakers trailing by three at home at the end of the second quarter, Kobe Bryant drove to the basket, attracting most of the Nuggets' defenders, before passing to a wide-open Sasha Vujacic. Despite a postseason shooting percentage that pretty much mirrored his uniform number (18), Vujacic nailed the shot. The team and the sold-out Staples Center crowd celebrated as if the Lakers had just won the game.
Earlier in the playoffs, Bryant would have forced his own shot, but with the Nuggets double- and sometimes triple-teaming him, the 2007-08 NBA MVP morphed into a playmaker and the league's most effective decoy. Bryant scored 22 points on just 13 shots and more importantly had a game-high eight assists as five Lakers scored in double figures and L.A. won 103-94.
The Lakers used this momentum to close out the Nuggets in Game 6 in Denver. Bryant played both facilitator and executioner, with a game-high 35 points and 10 assists. It was a brilliant performance by a player who was so difficult to stop that Nuggets coach George Karl joked, "I think Jesus would have had trouble covering [him]."
This steady play was in stark contrast to the Lakers' uneven efforts earlier in the series. After literally stealing Game 1, 105-103 at home after Trevor Ariza intercepted an Anthony Carter inbounds pass directed at Chauncey Billups, the Lakers dropped Game 2—and the home court advantage—to the Nuggets 106-103.
L.A. had first shown signs of jelling as a team during Game 3 in Denver, thanks to the leadership of its veteran point guard, Derek Fisher. A member of three Lakers championship teams, Fisher had been in a shooting slump in the playoffs. But with L.A. down four points in the fourth quarter Fisher gathered his teammates during a timeout and implored them to finally play up to their potential. "This is a moment in time when you can define yourself," he told them. "This is a moment when you can step into that destiny." Fisher's teammates later cited the speech as a turning point in the game, as Los Angeles rallied to win 103-97 and take a 2-1 series lead.
Although the Lakers were blown out by 19 in Game 4 in Denver, something had taken root within the team, and that something was on display in Game 5.
After the series clincher Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw sat in the locker room and marveled at how all the pieces of the team's championship puzzle were finally coming together at the right time. "The scary thing is, I don't think at any point this season have we all clicked at the same time. Hopefully that's still yet to come," he said. "When we finally get it together, it's going to be a sight to see."