Danilo Gallinari, down in form as well as spirit. (AP)
It's something of an understatement to say that Danilo Gallinari did not come up big for the Denver Nuggets in their Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night, a defeat that sent George Karl's upstart squad home for the summer after the opening round of the NBA playoffs for the second straight season. The 23-year-old forward missed eight of his nine field-goal attempts in the deciding game, scoring just three points in nearly 26 minutes of play and turning the ball over four times. It was a bad scene.
More damning, Karl yanked Gallinari at the 7:07 mark of the third quarter, parking him on the bench for all but a 1:58 stretch midway through the fourth ... during which he coughed it up to Metta World Peace with four minutes left and the Nuggets down five, earning himself a trip right back to the bench. In the biggest game of the year, Denver's coach didn't feel like he could trust a player the team just signed to a four-year, $42 million extension. Less than ideal.
As Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post put it, "Gallo was a zero," and 36 hours after Game 7, he was still pretty torn up about it.
The hurt left an emotional scar. You could feel his humiliation from here to his native Italy.
"I had a bad night. It's my nature, and I was given this by my parents, to live for those big moments. I want big games to prove to myself that I'm a winner and not a loser," Gallinari told me Monday [...]
"I didn't have just the world watching that game, but also my friends, my family and everybody in my home country knew I was coming out to have a big game. And I didn't."
Feeling like you let people down is the worst. The particular strain Gallo is referencing — basically, "the Adam Banks in 'The Mighty Ducks' strain" — is well known to anyone who's ever tried really hard to be excellent when your parent was finally able to get off work and come to your game, but failed. It's a bummer, and it can even stick with you when your head hits the pillow, as Kiszla writes:
If reputations are built or destroyed in the NBA playoffs, then Gallo has major repair to do. Because it's obvious he cares, I asked Gallinari if he has been able to sleep.
"I'm still not sleeping. I'm still mad," Gallinari said. "Not talking to anybody. You lucky I'm talking to you guys today."
Gallinari's frustration is understandable — as a second- or third-tier Western Conference team built on depth rather than star power, the Nuggets don't get a ton of national attention, so if he wants to build a reputation as a sharpshooter or lights-out scorer, he'll have to earn that recognition in the playoffs. And to this point, he hasn't — his per-36-minute scoring average and shooting percentages (field-goal, 3-point and free throw) are all down from his career marks in the 12 postseason appearances over the past two seasons. It's not quite star-status stuff.
Then again, that makes sense because ... y'know ... Danilo Gallinari isn't a star. The surprise isn't that he didn't play like a stud; it's that he didn't even play like himself.
He's a guy who scores about 16 points per 36 minutes, who's capable of popping for 30 on any given night but is much more likely to score half that. He shoots 42 percent from the floor, is pretty accurate from long range and very accurate from the foul line, has become a more willing passer, is getting better at moving his feet and using his length on defense, and doesn't rebound that well for either a 6-foot-10 guy or a garden-variety small forward. There's no shame in that — he's a good NBA rotation player, he's certainly useful, and he could become great one day — but right now, it's the truth.
A late-March thumb injury likely contributed something to his subpar performance — Gallo shot just 37.1 percent from the floor in 10 regular-season games after returning to the lineup, a mark that dipped to 36.1 percent (and just 17.4 percent from 3-point land) in the seven games against L.A. So did the Lakers defense (especially the harassment from a just-returned Metta World Peace in Game 7) and, yes, so did the combined effect of the pressures of the game on the floor and the game in his head. That's a lot to deal with; being great is hard.
There's good news for Gallinari, though. As renewable resources for offseason-workout motivation go, anger's right up there with the best of them; a return to health plus a summer spent sharpening could help him bridge the gap between the player he is and the player he thinks he is. Plus, he doesn't turn 24 for about three months, 12 late-spring games do not etch your rep in stone for eternity, and this Denver team looks primed to get a few more cracks at this postseason thing over the next few years.
Here's hoping that when Gallo does get some shut-eye, he'll be dreaming of those chances ahead rather than this opportunity lost.
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