Another year, another early exit. Or so we thought.
The Denver Nuggets entered Tuesday night’s contest against the Los Angeles Lakers in a familiar situation: on the ropes, down 3-1 in a series against a team they’ve never defeated in the postseason. Everybody in L.A. was already previewing the heavyweight matchup against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Denver pundits optimistically prayed for a sixth game in the altitude of the Mile High City. In a seemingly hopeless situation, the Nuggets prevailed.
Behind a dominating fourth quarter from newcomer JaVale McGee and double-digit performances from four other players, the Nuggets willed themselves to an improbable 102-99 win on the red carpet of Hollywood. The Lakers already had their bags packed for the Will Rogers World Airport. Instead, they’ll have to take a detour back to DIA. It’s the first time Denver has survived a playoff elimination game in its last seven tries.
However, a do-or-die game wouldn’t be complete without fist-clenching drama. The 19,000-plus fans at the sold-out Staples Center watched intently through their Elton John sunglasses as Denver withstood a spectacular 43-point effort from Kobe Bryant and endured a late charge from Los Angeles en route to forcing a Game 6 in Denver on Thursday. This was all after the Nuggets again misfired from three-point range, finishing a dismal 3-of-19 (16 percent) and were outrebounded by the opposition for the fourth time in the series.
But in the end, it merely came down to desire. The Nuggets simply wanted it more than the storied Lakers, even though the “Black Mamba” was playing as if his marriage was on the line.
“Usually I'm nowhere near the playoffs,” said McGee, who, in his fourth season, had never reached such a situation. “I definitely didn’t want this to be my last game.”
Neither did Andre Miller. The 14-year veteran came in off the Nuggets bench and racked up 24 points, eight assists and took the leadership role his team so desperately needed.
“He gave us a real emotional speech before the game,” continued McGee. “We just went out and played hard.”
The headliner of the series is the battle in the paint, and the matchup between the superstars of Los Angeles and the young guns of Denver has not disappointed. Andrew Bynum established his status as possibly the NBA’s best center early in the series but has trailed off as of late. He was embarrassed in Game 3 and couldn’t keep up with McGee in Game 5. He even shoved Kenneth Faried, who finished with a respectable 10-point, nine-rebound stat line, in frustration in the third quarter.
Pau Gasol, meanwhile, was seen gasping for air on the bench in Denver and looked worn down as the contest stretched on in his home floor.
With youth on their side, Faried and McGee appear to be hitting their stride. Faried’s motor has a longer shelf life than Charlie Sheen’s party years, and JaVale McGee was playing as if the harshest critic in his career was in attendance.
With the series extended at least another game, the magnifying glass will once again focus on Andrew Bynum. The centerpiece of the Lakers’ success will now play in possibly the most important game of his young career on Thursday. He was in the crosshairs of the L.A. media after being worked over in Game 3, and after a getting whipped by McGee on Tuesday, the hot seat is about to get exponentially hotter. Bynum has done himself no favors in the press room and scoffed at Denver’s odds in Tuesday’s matchup.
“Close-out games are actually kind of easy,” he boasted. “Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning, so we want to come out and establish an early lead and protect it.”
But the Lakers never led after the first quarter. The Nuggets are now armed with a tremendous amount of confidence, and if Bynum and his teammates thought the previous three battles were difficult, a pivotal Game 6 will unquestionably be the most challenging to date.
And to think the Lakers appeared to be holding all the cards just a few days ago. This may be a new series, but the Nuggets aren’t ready to pat themselves on the back. One of George Karl’s first quotes to the media was, “We can’t be too happy. We'll be happy, but tomorrow we have to go to work."
As we have all learned in the playoffs, the best team does not always win. We have also learned some of the most dangerous teams are hot young squads riding an unstoppable train of momentum. The Nuggets faced a do-or-die situation and have now turned the tables on their storied opponent.
Make no mistake, the Lakers are in peril. Returning to the raucous confines of Pepsi Center will be a tremendous task for Kobe and Co. The Nuggets have found their niche at home, winning seven of their last nine contests as the host. Plus, with blood in the water, the boisterous towel-waving fans at the Can will create an incredibly rowdy atmosphere.
The Lakers have never lost a postseason series to Denver. Right now, they’re playing with fire.