You didn't think the Lakers would sweep, did you?
Friday night in Game 3, the Denver Nuggets threw that possibility out the window, jumping all over the Lakers early in front of their home crowd. They built a big lead, managed to hold it as the Lakers fought back, then extended it at the end. Game 3 goes to the home team, and the series now stands 2-1 Lakers.
Here are three takeaways ...
1. Rebounding dictated results.
In the first half, the Nuggets managed only nine fast-break points. Compared to Game 2, a totally tolerable figure. What killed the Lakers early were second-chance opportunities for Denver, which built its 30-14 lead after the opening quarter in part because six offensive rebounds gave it 26 field-goal attempts to L.A.'s 19. Offensive rebounds lead to defensive confusion, which leads to easier looks, helping explain Denver's 50 percent mark over the first 12 minutes. The Lakers, meanwhile, were cold out of the gate, missing 12 of their first 19 shots and failing to get an offensive rebound on any of them. Heading into the second quarter, Denver had a whopping 17-6 advantage on the glass. The Lakers improved somewhat in the second, but Denver still went into halftime with a plus-13 in rebounding margin.
Turnabout being fair play, the Lakers made their third-quarter comeback in part because they suddenly started beating up the Nuggets on the offensive glass. Seven in the third quarter, helping them to an 18-9 rebounding advantage in the frame. Lo and behold, the Lakers got themselves to within four points with about a minute remaining. When Denver stopped the bleeding, it was offensive rebounding helping them do it, as McGee converted a third-chance opportunity, putting the Nuggets up by nine a minute into the fourth.
Over the course of the game, the Lakers evened things out from a rebounding standpoint, outdoing Denver on the boards (statistically, at least) after the first quarter. Except the damage was done. Yes, the Lakers managed to claw their way back into the game and were spectacular in the third, but had to expend a tremendous amount of energy in the process. In the fourth, they stuck around but couldn't get over the hump, and Denver pulled away over the last three minutes.
On the glass or in any other category, no team can dig that deep a hole and expect to get out with a win.
2. Third-quarter Andrew Bynum was a dominant Andrew Bynum.
Watching the game with my father-in-law, he turned to me at halftime and said, "Wow, you really didn't know Bynum was there." A high compliment for a spy or an official, but not for the starting center for the Western Conference in this year's All-Star Game. No points on only three attempts, and some fairly passive work defensively. When paired together on the floor, Bynum was thoroughly outplayed by JaVale McGee.
Out of the break, however, Bynum ramped up his energy substantially.
The Lakers got him the ball more (which helped), and after starting the half with an airball, he got on the board with a lefty jump hook over Timofey Mozgov. From there it was on. Bynum repeatedly earned deep post position, making it tough for the Nuggets to send hard doubles in time to stop him from making a strong move. As the Lakers made a run in the third, George Karl came back with McGee, but it didn't slow Bynum down. He used his strength to force his way to a pair of and-1s. Drew got on the offensive glass for a putback and was far more active defensively. He'd finish the quarter with 12 points, four boards and a block.
In the fourth, the Nuggets managed to slow Bynum down a little, but not completely, as he still finished a couple of plays and find his way to the stripe. In the end, Drew's line wasn't bad -- 18/12, with two blocks -- but like the rest of his teammates it took him far too long to get going on both ends of the floor. The Lakers can't get by without Bynum fully engaged, and Friday only got half a night's worth.
3. Kobe's shooting woes in Denver continue.
In two regular-season games at Pepsi Center, Bryant was 13-of-51 from the field (25.4 percent). Tonight wasn't any better. Bryant hit three of his first five shots, but it was rough sledding from there. Kobe missed 15 of his next 19 attempts, finishing with 22 points on 7-of-23 from the field. The distressing thing wasn't simply the low percentage but the types of shots Bryant was getting (or, depending on your POV, deciding to take). Denver made him work for every inch, no matter where he was on the floor. He was forced into a ton of very difficult, deep looks. Early, some of that was a function of L.A.'s horrible offensive flow. There were certainly a few late-clock hoists, but for the most part, credit should go to Denver's defense, as Karl threw a variety of defenders and looks his way.
While there were certainly too many triples (10), Kobe did try to get into the paint, but even then found plenty of traffic. Everything, jumpers and drives alike, was contested. It's fitting that his final field goal, late in the fourth after the game was out of reach, came on a twisting, over-the-shoulder circus play when it looked like he wanted to pass but couldn't find a lane. It was that kind of night.
Between now and Sunday's Game 3, the Lakers will need to get back to the drawing board and find more creative ways to spring Bryant for clean looks. Even in Game 2, when he lit up Denver like a Christmas tree in the first half, Kobe still was taking a lot of shots the Nuggets could live with, but canning them. Not much they can do about that.
Tonight, a lot of the shots were similar, and they didn't fall. Kobe worked hard, grabbing six rebounds and dishing six assists, but those dimes were balanced by six turnovers from Bryant, coming both from pressure put on him by the Nuggets, and mistakes from Kobe trying to work through it on his way to the rack.
In all, Kobe's game was reflective of a night when the Lakers did a poor job establishing themselves in the post, whether with Bynum, Bryant or Pau Gasol. Denver sent bodies and the Lakers couldn't find space. Blame poor ball movement, player movement and outside shooting (6-25 from downtown). Karl had his team collapse on the post whenever possible, and the Lakers never made them pay.
The Lakers aren't a perimeter team, but have to keep teams honest in order to make the post and penetration games effective. Friday, they couldn't open up the paint and became a jumpshooting team. When that happens, they can't expect to succeed.