Down 2-0 in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Denver Nuggets returned home to the Pepsi Center and played like a desperate team with nothing to lose.
Losing is something Ty Lawson would not allow the Nuggets to do, as he had Denver playing the up-tempo style they prefer from the opening tip. Lawson scored 18 points in the first half, as Denver raced out to a 55-39 halftime lead.
The Lakers trailed by as many as 24 at one point, but fought back furiously in the second half, cutting the lead down to four. However, the early hole was too big to climb out of, and the Nuggets reduced the Lakers' series lead to 2-1 with a 99-84 win.
The Nuggets' defense made things tough on Kobe Bryant, and a surprise monster effort from Javale McGee kept Andrew Bynum frustrated all evening long.
Los Angeles shot only 37 percent from the floor, and the Denver bench outscored the Lakers' bench, 39-9, as no one wearing a Lakers uniform had any success offensively. Rebounding was also key, as the Nuggets out-rebounded the Lakers, 54-44. McGee and rookie Kenneth Faried pulled down 15 apiece.
Tweets of the Night
After the Lakers cut the Nuggets' lead to 45-34 in the second quarter, George Karl addressed his team, according to the Denver Nuggets' official Twitter account:
Karl: "Everybody's got to help rebound the ball. Be more physical. Push them to the crowd." DEN 45, LAL 34— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) May 5, 2012
Andrew Bynum was a beast in the first two games of the series, but was next to invisible in the first half, being outplayed by McGee, as Real GM's Michael Scotto pointed out:
Andrew Bynum with 0 points in the 1st half while JaVale McGee has 8 points & 9 rebounds. You'd think McGee was the All-Star. #Lakers— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) May 5, 2012
The battle between McGee and Bynum turned into a physical contest between giants that we don't often see these days in the NBA. ESPN's J.A. Adande compared it to an old-school battle between a couple of legendary big men:
Seriously, Bynum & McGee is turning into one of the best big-men battles I've seen since...dare I say Shaq & Duncan?— J.A. Adande (@jadande) May 5, 2012
ESPN's Ric Bucher chimed in on Bynum, who can be dominant at times, but also very frustrating:
Bynum, 24, already has a sprinkle of gray. So maybe he frustrates himself as much as he does his team at times.— Ric Bucher (@RicBucher) May 5, 2012
Nothing was easy for the Lakers in the first half, but Ramon Sessions did find Paul Gasol for an easy alley-oop.
Lawson played an inspired game at both ends of the floor and was a big reason the Nuggets raced out to a 24-point first-half lead. Here, he comes up with a big steal and finishes the play at the rim.
Grades for Key Lakers Players
Kobe Bryant: C-
Bryant averaged 34.5 PPG and shot 49 percent from the floor throughout the first two games of the series, but found it a little tougher on the road.
Denver contested Kobe's shots much better, and Bryant didn't really make an impact, finishing the game with 22 points on only 7-of-23 shooting. Even more of a factor, Bryant went over 19 minutes of game action in the second half without scoring a point.
Andrew Bynum: C
Bynum was scoreless throughout the first half after playing MVP-type basketball the first two games. He responded in the second half and finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, but he was clearly frustrated by the defensive effort from McGee and the rest of the Nuggets' bigs.
Grades for Key Nuggets Players
Ty Lawson: A
Lawson was responsible for pushing the tempo for the Nuggets and was next to unstoppable in the first half, making 7-of-11 shots.
He cooled off a bit in the second, but still finished with 25 points and seven assists, and took tremendous care of the ball, not committing a turnover all night.
JaVale McGee: A+
McGee showed up to play in a big way after being a non-factor up to this point in the series. He battled with Bynum throughout the game and stepped up to answer the call after Bynum dominated the Denver big men through two games.
He finished the night with 16 points, 15 rebounds (six offensive), blocked three shots and shot 8-of-12 from the floor. McGee brought energy and made all the hustle plays the Nuggets needed.
Deciding Factor: Tempo
Denver got out and played the style of basketball it wanted early on by running, running and running some more. The Lakers were able to slow Denver down through stretches in the second half, but ultimately, they dug themselves too big of a hole.
When the Lakers had things going their way, turnovers became a huge issue as well, as Los Angeles turned the ball over 15 times, allowing Denver to push the pace and turn defense into offense. Coincidentally, the Nuggets took care of the ball and turned it over only seven times.
Game MVP: Ty Lawson
It's awfully hard not to give this to McGee, as he played a significant role in slowing down Bynum, but Lawson was the key for Denver.
He got the Nuggets out and running early and set the tempo for the game. The North Carolina product outplayed Ramon Sessions, and his effort from the opening tip inspired the rest of his Denver teammates. Without Lawson's effort early on, the Nuggets likely wouldn't have a chance to even up the series on Sunday.
Game 4 is Sunday, again in Denver, and the Nuggets have the chance to get right back in the series if they can take care of business again at home. With the loss, the Lakers are now only 15-19 on the road for the season, so that plays in the Nuggets' favor.
It all comes down to pace, and whoever plays their signature style will have a huge advantage.