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Ball Don't Lie

Behind the Box Score, where the Nuggets were too much for Kobe Bryant’s gutty game

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Kobe Bryant goes all "ugggghhhhh" during Thursday's Nuggets/Lakers game (Getty Images)

Denver Nuggets 113, Los Angeles Lakers 96 (Series tied, 3-3)

Yell at these Lakers all you want. Get frustrated at Andrew Bynum's sleepy play, Pau Gasol's inability to do anything in the post and the squad's refusal to take advantage of a clearly flu-ridden Kobe Bryant's gutty 31 points on 23 shots. Still, please give these Denver Nuggets credit. The Nuggets are good enough to play in the second round out West, and they're good enough to beat a Lakers team that obviously has championship potential.

And Los Angeles will have to fight to fulfill that potential. That was always going to be the case against Denver because the Nuggets are too deep and too good to dismiss.  And when Denver starts the game on a 13-0 run and then peels out of the second half just as effectively and dominant, the Nuggets just aren't going to lose. Credit George Karl for having his men ready.

Do we discredit Mike Brown for clearly not having the same running for Los Angeles? I think you can. He's had weeks to ring Bynum's ears. He's had months to figure out how to make Gasol a more consistent mainstay of this team's offense. But at some point Bynum has to act like a leader, and Gasol has to hit more than 1 of 10 shots. And at some point we need to stop talking about the Lakers so much and pay more attention to the team that has won two in a row to force a Game 7 on Saturday night.

Denver's guards continue to get their way. Ramon Sessions is clearly an upgrade defensively from Derek Fisher, but he's never been known as anything more than adequate defensively, and Ty Lawson (after a so-so Game 5) absolutely had his way with the Lakers on Thursday night. It took just 18 shots for Lawson to put up 32 points, and he added six assists while declining to add any turnovers. Add in Kenneth Faried's hustle and Los Angeles' apparent apathy, and you have a blowout that isn't fully represented by a relatively close 17-point Denver advantage.

This is what the Nuggets do, if you'll allow them to, and this is obviously what the Los Angeles Lakers do. Nothing has to be easy, everything has to be rife with drama, and they have less than 48 hours to turn it all around and get it right before Game 7.

Do they go down as martyrs, as was the case this time last year? Kobe was absolutely on point in Game 6, but does he attempt to shoot his team into the second round on Saturday, percentages be damned? Will he have to, if Gasol floats and Bynum continues to pout?

Denver's already taken a game in Los Angeles, and they could have taken a second one in Game 2. But with comebacks and tied series come responsibility, expectation and added pressure. It might be enough, playing from a draw, to overwhelm George Karl's team. If not George Karl.

Who knows how either side will respond?

I love the playoffs. Even this year's model.

***

Boston Celtics 83, Atlanta Hawks 80 (Celtics win series, 4-2)

For a while in the fourth quarter, the Atlanta Hawks looked like a team worth cheering for. Boston wasn't screwing up — it was that those Hawks were actually playing an assertive, confident brand of basketball that should have led to a win and a Game 7 back home in Georgia this weekend. And then, out of nowhere, bad habits returned. Jeff Teague dribbled the ball for each of a possession's 24 seconds before missing a hurried layup. Joe Johnson worked real, real hard for a fadeaway, low-percentage 21-footer that he put too much on. Al Horford missed the first of two free throws that could have tied the game. It happens, but he compounded that mitigating factor by failing to miss the second one on purpose.

And the Celtics prevailed. In an ugly series that nobody was looking forward to and few will remember, the C's and Hawks gave us a couple of close games that were loaded with more missteps than fabulous moves, but that's OK. Because it's over now, and we'll still have fond memories of the times when Josh Smith and Al Horford took good shots, all while playing through injuries that the word "nagging" just doesn't do justice.

We're beyond our saturation point with Kevin Garnett memories — the dude flooded that sponge years ago — but his Game 6 work was pretty special to behold: 28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, three steals, two dimes and just one turnover in nearly 39 minutes against a bruising front court. When Garnett sat, the Boston offense absolutely fell apart, as would any team that features Ryan Hollins (two points and two rebounds in 18 minutes, somehow still getting burn without actually doing anything) in its bench rotation. The Celtics' pine, overall, was pretty shocking with a combined 3-1of-4 shooting.

It was enough, though. It will always be enough against Atlanta because the Hawks continually shoot themselves in the foot with strange decisions at the absolute worst time. We'll get into their future later on Friday. For now, though, this is all about a Celtics team that could find itself in the conference finals for the third time in five years later this month.

Quite believable, with nary an "un" to be found. Even if, yes, that is Ryan Hollins.

What hurts the C's moving forward is the pain. We'll have a series preview for their showdown with the 76ers going up at BDL soon enough, but we should point out that with the 76ers series ending as well on Thursday night, Boston won't have as much time to recover. Paul Pierce has looked sluggish since hurting his knee on Sunday, and though his stats in the two games since aren't the worst we've seen (12-of-28 shooting, 17 points per game on 43 percent from the floor), Andre Iguodala awaits. A 1-of-7 night from the field brought his postseason shooting percentage down to 45 percent, but Ray Allen has had a good playoff run despite the bone spurs in his ankles. K.G., apparently, is ageless. Rajon Rondo stirs the drink.

It's all unprecedented, every bit of this. Boston was in and out of prominence all season, and now it has a chance to make it to the third round or beyond.

Maybe I'm getting a little too excited over Kevin Garnett. Even a sponge gets thirsty sometimes.

***

Philadelphia 76ers 79, Chicago Bulls 78 (76ers win series, 4-2)

In a vacuum, there's absolutely no reason to have any faith in the Philadelphia 76ers moving forward. The team needed six games to barely beat a Chicago Bulls team that was playing without (in my opinion, apologies to Luol Deng) its best two players. Chicago came all the way back to take a four-point lead in this game, which is a massive advantage in a game where both teams combined to score just 69 second-half points, as the 76ers nearly destroyed their chances by continually failing to reel in defensive rebounds.

Get out of the vacuum, though. Because … you go ahead and get those rebounds. Just try it.

Seriously, it's one thing to have to match the intensity and drive and talent of a Chicago frontline that is just desperately heaving itself at loose balls in what was potentially (and eventually) its last game of the season. But it's also something else entirely to try and corral Chicago's crazy shots. The Bulls couldn't score to save their life, so the Sixers were continually forced to attempt to box out on shots coming off the rim (if the Bulls were lucky) and backboard at impossible angles. The 76ers were fourth in the NBA in defensive rebound rate during the regular season. They're fine. This was an aberration in a season full of them.

(In a series full of them. Obviously, we'll talk about the Bulls later on Friday once we run out of tissues.)

So I'm not going to freak out too much over the Sixers pulling in 28 defensive rebounds in a game that saw the Bulls missed a combined 55 shots from the floor and free throws. The Boston Celtics (Philly's second round opponent) pull in an offensive rebound once every 37 minutes -- I looked it up -- so the Sixers should have an advantage on the glass against the team's next opponent.

It's going to be a quick turnaround, though. Sixers coach Doug Collins lives for practice, but his team will have only one full day "off" between Thursday night's win and Game 1 of the second round. And with his young team heading into Boston for the first two games, the up-and-down Sixers might regard a 2-0 Boston lead as a fait accompli, which is probably already giving Collins heartburn.

Yes, Philly nearly gave it all away. A Game 7 win in Chicago was never a given for the Bulls, not with the way they shoot, but this is just how these 76ers operate. It remains a dangerous and talented team, to be sure, but one that doesn't consistently play bigger than the sum of its parts despite Collins' significant gifts. Sometimes rosters just aren't meant to be together.

Sometimes they back into the second round, though. Or third, even. The Sixers are as funky as ever.

(Yes, C.J. Watson should not have passed the ball. But this thing has ended, and it's time to move on. Piling onto a guy that has ably and sometimes spectacularly played through injuries for most of the regular season and playoffs -- just because he saw the open man and acted -- will do no good, for anyone.)

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