With just under a minute remaining before intermission, J.R. Smith poked the ball out Kobe Bryant's hands, one of five turnovers for the Mamba on an often-brutal afternoon taking care of the ball. This particular gaffe left Smith alone in space, where he took the rock to the hoop, busted a quick dunk, then put his finger to his lips while facing the Staples faithful.
Smith's never been one for subtlety over his audacious-Tweeting, chicken-dancing, excessive-celebrating career, and this taunt was no exception. But it was also more than a little early for showboating. I can't confirm whether or not the Lakers players actually saw the gesture, but considering every media member I spoke with noticed, regardless of where they were seated, it's certainly possible at least one member of the purple and gold caught it in the corner of their eye.
And while Smith was, technically speaking, requesting quiet time, the motion was a metaphorical risk of waking a sleeping giant.
One finger to the lips serving as an alarm clock. Time for the hosts to wake up and play.
The Lakers' first half was often an exercise in miserable, boo-bird baiting play. Like on the sequence previously cited, turnovers were the killer. 13 in all, accounting for 20 of the Nuggets' points. The purple and gold's focus was every bit as fleeting as during Friday's sleepwalking win over Philly. It appeared another lackluster effort was in the works, despite the stakes involved with allowing the Western Conference's most dangerous opponent three regular season wins in as many tries.
Once halftime concluded, everything changed.
After allowing 52 first half points, the Lakers held Denver to just 37 over the ensuing 24 minutes. A third quarter at 36.8 percent was low-balled down to 26.3 in the following frame, and the Nuggets proceeded to turn the ball over 12 times and saw five of their shots blocked. Ron Artest was an absolute beast on this end, earning my vote for game ball while harnessing his energy into a positive.
Late in the second quarter, his out of control dribbling and lost handle on a possession resulted in an eventual shot clock violation and Kobe motioning the forward to settle down. This time around, Artest was a game-changer, racking three steals in the third quarter alone and poking the ball away countless times. No exaggeration, the guy was a one-man wrecking crew.
Forget Carmelo Anthony ever getting an easy shot. He often had trouble getting a shot off, between Artest's busy hands, imposing body and relentless pursuit. The All-Star three finished with 21 points on seven-of-19 shooting and eventually fouled out with two minutes and change to go.
37 guesses as to who drew the sixth foul.
The Lakers seemingly fed off Artest's drive, refusing to go away after Denver's 10-0 third quarter run reverted a one-point margin back to eleven in its favor. The Lakers got themselves over that hump by playing hard, playing with intelligence, and playing with purpose.
Basically, they played how fans have been begging them to after a January and February often in cruise control.
It's too early to predict whether this team-wide shift in vigor will remain consistently intact, but it did serve as a forceful reminder of the buzz saw the Lakers are capable of transforming themselves into when interested and motivated.
By the way, Smith missed all six shots attempted during the second half.
As John Lennon warned, "Instant karma's gonna get ya."
RON ARTEST CHANGES THE GAME
"He was fantastic. That's what he's here for. he's here for these situations, these types of small forwards. He went out and earned his money today."
--Kobe Bryant, on Ron Artest's work guarding Carmelo Anthony Sunday afternoon in L.A.'s 95-89 win over the Nuggets at Staples.
I don't think anyone who watched what Artest did to 'Melo and the Nuggets as a group would disagree.
Officially, Artest was credited with six steals, but it seemed like more, thanks to his activity. He seemed to get a hand on every pass, or force Denver into spots they didn't want to be. At one point in the second half, he nearly ripped the ball from Anthony's hands (he's not a small man, either) to force a jump ball. After an opening 24 minutes in which the Lakers were, quite frankly, pushed around, the physical intensity of Artest's defense was a major reason they were able to turn it around.
Anthony made only seven of his 19 shots on the afternoon, including three-of-seven in the second half and only one (a miss) in the fourth. By the time Melo fouled out- an offensive foul drawn by Artest with 2:13 to play- he'd turned the ball over a whopping eight times.
The book on the Lakers says they're soft, and Denver did a lot in the first half to make good on that narrative. Cover Ron Artest in a mountain of pillows, wrap him in Charmin, put nothing but Air Supply on his iPod. Whatever. He is not soft. Today, perhaps more than any other game this season, the Lakers saw the benefit of Artest's presence. Not simply because of his skill set, but literally his presence. Few players can alter games like he did today.
12: Kobe's dimes on the afternoon, tying a season-high, with five alone in the fourth quarter. As mentioned earlier, turnovers were an issue for Kobe, compounded by a three-of-17 clip from the field for just fourteen points. But as Phil Jackson noted afterward, Mamba still "found a way to help us win the game."
Kobe inflicted a great deal of his damage on Denver from the mid-post, particularly in the second half. He forced the Nuggets to either double, at which point he found a nearly endless stream of open players, or watch him drag Arron Afflalo or Smith under the bucket for easy points. But down the stretch, rare were the unwise hoists. As Artest said, "Kobe made everyone better tonight."
20: Denver's turnover total. You could also go with 16, the Lakers' final count for steals, a season-high. Either way, both figures are significant, and hardly unrelated.
20 (again): Lamar Odom's point total while leading all Lakers scorers from the bench. Combined with one dozen boards, it was a monster game for the Lakers' sixth man.
4: Turnovers in the second half for the Lakers. Clean living with the ball was a huge factor in forging a comeback.
Phil Jackson, on Kobe Bryant's performance:
"He had a poor night shooting, there's no doubt about it. He's just out of rhythm right now. It looks like he's shooting the ball on the way up and sometimes he's shooting it on the way down and he's just not in rhythm. But the presence of putting him in the post and making plays out of that gave him 12 assists. That was what we had to have at the time and that's what he is. He found a way to help us win the game."
Jackson, on the need for his team, particularly his bigs, to dig in against Denver's physical play:
"Retaliation is something that gets you in trouble, but there's a point which you have to hold your ground, and this is a point we had to make tonight."
Pau Gasol, on how the Lakers need to play:
"We need to really be the aggressor. We need to challenge people. Instead, we are always being challenged. That's the way I feel about it. Teams are always trying to challenge us because we rely so much on your quality and the depth of our team. We are not aggressive enough and we need to start challenging teams and imposing our will in games because we can. It is unfortunate sometimes we don't do it. We are happy or content at winning games sometimes and not playing really to our potential."
Kenyon Martin, on the game's physical nature:
"It's a basketball game. It's a contact sport. That's the way we play. That's the way they try to play. That's what makes it a good game."
(AK's note: I found this quote interesting on two levels. First, it's likely a hint of what we'll continue seeing down the road, not that anyone would expect anything less. But K-Mart's phrasing also caught my ear. The Lakers "try to play" physical. Whether intentional or purely incidental, I thought it was worth pointing out.)
And finally, my favorite sound bite
Lakers P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter to the crowd after the win:
"Those tacos will taste mighty good this afternoon."
Pau Gasol on the need to crank up intensity
Kobe Bryant, on the game's atmosphere, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest
Phil Jackson on Artest's defensive contribution:
Jackson on L.A.'s offensive adjustments, and the change of play from the first half to the second:
Jackson, on Kobe and his game Sunday, rivalry with Denver: