Kobe Bryant has fun with friends in Tuesday's Laker win (Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers 104, Denver Nuggets 100 (Lakers lead series, 2-0)
The easy once-over is to look at Denver's 4-19 3-point shooting and conclude that the team would be flying back home to Colorado with a 1-1 series tie if the Nuggies were just able to knock in those long-range bombs. Denver shot 4-14 in the first game, though, and a couple of the makes in both games were late-possession luck-outs. At some point, we're going to have to start crediting the Laker defense on the perimeter as much as we do the Laker size on the interior.
Then there's also the small matter of Kobe Bryant playing his tail off throughout the contest. Bryant struggled down the stretch, as Danilo Gallinari's long arms forced him into a series of missed long jumpers and one tough reverse layup that didn't fall, but overall he was brilliant — 38 points on 29 shots, and the patience to give the ball up early in the possession when things weren't working. This is why Pau Gasol actually led Los Angeles in assists with five, and Andrew Bynum was able to put up 27 points on 20 shots from the field. Ramon Sessions wasn't shooting especially well (5-15, before his dagger), but he looked off Bryant after Gallinari forced the Kobester into a tough miss, nailed a runner late in the fourth, and helped put the game away.
This is what the Lakers can do now.
At this point, I have a hard time seeing the Nuggets holding serve with two games in Denver. But it's not hard to see them competing. I very much doubt the Lakers will sweep, but Denver isn't fading by any stretch. And though Los Angeles clearly has George Karl's squad outclassed in the interior, it isn't too much of a stretch to assume that if the Nuggets improve on the team's 24 percent 3-point shooting then we could be heading back to California in a week with a tie series on our hands.
A lot would have to go right for the Nuggets, though. Because despite the series deficit, the Nuggets have played well; even if they've had a few brain cramps and lapses in temerity (if not effort). Don't mistake that deficit for a Nuggets team that hasn't woken up — the Lakers are really this good. This great, even. Championship-level great, as we've been pounding our heads against the wall in frustration over, all season.
To wit: Andrew Bynum had 27 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, zero turnovers; he said Denver "can't stop me" in a postgame interview, and we didn't even bother to write a blog post about it, bitching about the guy's attitude. Because he's right. Because they probably can't stop him. Who can?
If this is the start of a slow burn? Look out, NBA. And keep playing smart, efficient basketball, Los Angeles.
Philadelphia 76ers 109, Chicago Bulls 92 (Series tied, 1-1)
Observers can point to a strange absence of defensive principles from the Chicago Bulls in the team's Tuesday night loss, and they'd be right. The 76ers shot 59 percent, made 41 percent of their 2-pointers, and the Bulls had their heads turned way too often. There's only so much you can do on the fast break, though. Only so many defensive sets you can set up on the fly, after missing shot after shot after shot. Only so many 76ers you can stay in front of defensively once you start to miss just about everything you toss up offensively.
Overall, the Bulls didn't have their worst offensive night in a season that has seen them rank both at the top of the league in offensive efficiency, and second-to last in the stat during a Derrick Rose-less stretch late in the regular season; because the team did put up 53 first-half points. But the Bulls were nearly matched in the team's second-half output (37 points) by the Sixers (36 points) in the third quarter, as Doug Collins' team appeared to be working with a 4-on-3 advantage throughout.
It was exactly the sort of Philly runs that marked this season's first month, last winter. And when things tended to bog down, Jrue Holiday (26 points on 15 shots) was the killer both in the open and half court. The Sixers didn't turn the ball over the entire second half, and the team appeared locked in; reminding exactly of that group that seemed so scary in the season's first month. Which almost has me wondering if this was an aberration.
This series, with or without Rose, was always going to be a struggle for Chicago. If the Bulls offense fell apart and Philly developed the crazy-hot hand even with Rose around for Game 2, it wouldn't come as much of a surprise, because the 76ers' weird season never seemed to care if they were playing on the road or not. This is why, for Bulls fans, they can't take this game as a sign of things to come.
It can happen three more times, though. The 76ers are that deep, that talented on either end, and you don't take 10 of 13 NBA games to start a season without something in the tank. This is going to be a battle, no matter the outcome.
Boston Celtics 87, Atlanta Hawks 80 (Series tied, 1-1)
It was the quick take on the Boston Celtics even when the team was working at full strength — you're going to have a miserable time scoring on Boston, so if you allow one of the team's ancient stars to have a throwback game, you're probably going to lose. Even if one of those stars turns the ball over eight times. And especially if, sadly, one of your game-tilting stars has to leave the game with 4 1/2 minutes to go.
We don't know if the Atlanta Hawks would have won Tuesday night's Game 2 had Josh Smith been healthy throughout, Paul Pierce (36 points, 14 rebounds, those eight turnovers) was clearly on a mission from the outset, and the Boston defense just seemed to be absolutely everywhere. It wasn't just that the C's held Atlanta to just below 35 percent shooting, it was also the fact that Boston was running Atlanta off of good shots, and the Hawks were often passing up on makeable looks to make an extra-extra-extra pass that went absolutely nowhere. For all of Jeff Teague's activity and gusto, the third-year guard only shot 6-18, and he seemed to be the team's best player after Smith.
Smith sprained his knee just after the 4 1/2-minute point in the fourth quarter and will have an MRI on Wednesday. Even if the images show a sound knee, even a hitch in his gallop will be bad news for a Hawks team suddenly working without home-court advantage and momentum on its side. The Celtics get Rajon Rondo back soon, they have three games in Boston and three games left to win the series, and Joe Johnson is making less than a third of his shots to start the postseason. Anything can turn in this one, especially because Boston often struggles to make it past 50 points by the fourth quarter, but the momentum has clearly shifted.
For as long as the momentum in a series like this can, I suppose.
We knew Pierce had to make a difference in a contest like this, and he came through with exactly the sort of game you'd expect — hot early, hot late. Just enough for us to pounce when we were paying attention, a pause to forget when the game became a bit dull, and remember once again in the fourth quarter because our memories don't stretch much earlier than the mid-point of the fourth quarter. Perfect veteran narrative. Thank you, Paul.
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