DENVER -- In the NBA playoffs it's not necessarily about keeping players out of the paint or off the boards. It's about keeping them off the podium.
When the postseason arrives and the numbers of media members increase, the key players don't speak to reporters in the crowded locker rooms anymore. They're in the interview room, up on stage, with the logoed backdrop behind them, the cameras beaming their words on live television. Normally it's the province of the superstars, the one-name guys such as Kobe, LeBron and Dirk.
But when someone such as Steve Blake shows up at the podium, it's a bad sign for the opponent. It means they failed to fulfill one of the primary goals of anyone going up against a superstar (or superstars): Don't let the other guys beat you. If you're going to lose, lose to a player who ranks among the game's all-time greats, not someone who can't even crack his own team's starting lineup.
But it was Blake, not Kobe Bryant, who made the most memorable shot of the the Los Angeles Lakers' 92-88 victory over the Denver Nuggets: the decisive 3-pointer with 18.9 seconds left to play that doubled the Lakers' lead, from three to six, that made it a two-possession game with less than a shot clock's worth of time remaining. Bryant drove into the lane, drew a second defender, then passed to an open Blake on the left side.
In the process he answered one of the biggest questions about the Lakers in the playoffs: Could they get enough support from their supporting players?
Jordan Hill has given them two good games of rebounds and put-back baskets in a reserve role, in Game 1 and Game 4. Ramon Sessions had his best game of this series. And Blake, whose salvo of three 3-pointers ignited the Lakers' strong start in the first quarter of the opening game, finished off Game 4.
It didn't matter that Blake had made only two of his previous 14 3-pointers in the interim. Bryant has steadfastly remained confident in Blake. He'll pass him the ball without hesitation or regret, even with the swing game of the series on the line.
"Those moments don't scare him," Bryant said.
It takes a certain boldness for the secondary players to assume prominent roles in the playoffs. They don't get the reps of constantly taking the pressure shots throughout the season. Fail and their mere presence on the court, let alone their possession of the ball, can come into question.
But if they come through they can alter the course of a series.
"The focus of the defense is going to be on Kobe and Andrew and Pau and we're going to get open shots," Blake said. "It's just up to us to make them."
Some call them X factors. Nuggets coach George Karl said he feared the Lakers' "wild cards."
I always say to watch out for the Podium Games. They're the pivotal parts of the postseason, when the unsung guys step to the forefront. It might come on the strength of one quarter, such as the three baskets and eight points Blake had in the fourth Sunday night. Sometimes all it takes is a single shot. All of a sudden a no-name has a Podium Game.
(Before the language officers take over the comments section, I recognize it could technically be a dais or even a rostrum. Podium just sounds better. And Olympic athletes receive their medals on a podium. I feel getting to the podium in an NBA playoff game is the equivalent of an award.)
On this night it could have just as easily have been Sessions sitting there. He hit the 3-pointer that broke an 86-86 tie with 48.1 seconds left to play.
If the Hubie Browns of the world -- the types who revere the plays that don't register in the box score -- had their way, then Pau Gasol might have been up there as well. He set a screen that took out Danilo Gallinari (literally; Gallo was on the ground writhing in pain), then got a pass from Bryant and fed Sessions in the corner for his three.
This was Blake's turn. It didn't matter that his 3-point percentage in his two seasons with the Lakers (.359 last season, .377 this year) have been below his career average of .404. As Blake said, "This is the time where it matters."
You know a little thing that says a lot about the Nuggets? They don't have a guaranteed podium guy, someone who is automatically sent to the room every night as Kobe is. In this series they have alternated between Gallinari and Ty Lawson.
On the court that translates into no go-to guy in crunch time. It has been a critical issue for them throughout the season. They were 5-25 in games when they were tied or trailing entering the fourth quarter. They were 6-6 in games decided by three points or less.
In this game they shot 35 percent in the fourth quarter. They were 1-for-6 on their 3-point attempts. (In an added cruel twist, their old teammate Carmelo Anthony had a 40-point game earlier to give the Knicks their first playoff victory earlier in the day).
The defining Nuggets play wound up being Lawson driving, getting caught in the air, and throwing a lob pass to Andre Miller. Miller, more accustomed to being the lobber than the lobbee, missed his shot at the basket.
You know what's interesting? Miller's fourth-quarter numbers -- 1-for-5 shooting, 2 points, 3 turnovers – were identical to those of Bryant, the Lakers' closer.
One thing a Podium Game can do is take the pressure off the guys who are the ones who are accustomed to being there. (The ultimate bail-out Podium Game was Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals, when Robert Horry saved Tim Duncan from having to account for a disastrous game).
On Sunday, Bryant's presence did create the double that freed Blake for his shot. And Blake said Bryant's attempt to block a shot by Gallinari enabled Blake to sneak up and swat it away.
"I don't think he saw me from behind," Blake said. "Probably my first or second [block] of the year, I think."
Definitely his first Podium Game. Later in the night, a worker removed the blue backdrop adorned with NBA playoff logos from behind the podium. And with the Lakers taking a 3-1 lead back to Los Angeles for Game 5, the backdrop probably won't go up again.