The Los Angeles Lakers got off to another sluggish start, clearly functioning on tired legs against the well-rested Denver Nuggets. Denver came out on fire and knocked down almost every shot that the team put up.
Carmelo Anthony was held to 14 points per game against the Lakers all season. He sought to break out of his scoring slump against L.A. and the Nuggets followed the hot hand. Anthony had 39 points in the game; 16 came in the first quarter.
This helped Denver take a double digit lead, which the Lakers cut down to eight by the end of the quarter. The score at the end of the first quarter was 31-23 Denver.
The second quarter appeared to mirror the first quarter in terms of scoring, but the difference was that the momentum had shifted into the Lakers favor.
Los Angeles outscored Denver 32-23 in the second period, capped off by a play where Kobe Bryant drove to the basket, drew two defenders, and passed to Derek Fisher for a 25-foot three point basket to give the Lakers a slim 55-54 lead at halftime.
You could sense in the second quarter that this would be an epic playoff battle that would go down to the wire. The third quarter didn’t disappoint as Denver continued to play well and knock down shots led by Anthony and Chauncey Billups.
This was a matchup where we saw both teams continue to fight. The Lakers used an 11-2 scoring run to take a four point lead, only to see that lead vanish; the score at the end of the third quarter was 76-74 Denver.
The Nuggets maintained their lead in the fourth quarter and increased the margin to as many as six points. Bryant kept the Lakers close—he finished the game with 40 points—dropping 18 points on Denver in the fourth quarter.
Whenever Los Angeles needed a basket, Bryant was the one that provided it.
The Lakers continued to chip away at the Nuggets' lead and eventually took it on a timely Derek Fisher three point play after Bryant attacked the painted area and drew a double team and made the score 97-96.
Nuggets PF Kenyon Martin then made the first of his two ridiculous fouls late in the quarter to send Pau Gasol to the free throw line. Denver escaped that blunder as Gasol missed both free throws.
Chauncey Billups knocked down a 27-foot three pointer to give Denver a 99-97 lead. Gasol was fouled again and given the opportunity to redeem himself at the line. This time he made both free throws to knot the score at 99 all.
There were 30 seconds on the clock and the game was on the line. Bryant made the correct decision when he decided to attack the basket. He was fouled by Martin and calmly knocked down both free throws to make the score 101-99 Lakers.
An interesting coaching move was made by each side that would seal the fate of both teams. Nuggets coach George Karl made the decision to insert Anthony Carter into the game for J.R. Smith. Lakers coach Phil Jackson replaced Luke Walton with Trevor Ariza.
On the inbounds play, the 6’2” Carter attempted to lob a pass over the 6’10” Lamar Odom. Ariza, who was out of the vision of Chauncey Billups, read the play, shot the gap, and made arguably his biggest play ever as a Laker by stealing the ball.
He got the ball to Bryant, who was fouled and sent to the free throw line where he knocked down both shots again, making it 103-99 Lakers. On the very next play, Chauncey Billups knocked down a controversial three pointer to cut the lead to one.
It was controversial due to the fact that the replay showed that his right foot was on the line as he jab stepped to shake free of Ariza’s defense. Kobe Bryant was fouled on the next possession and calmly knocked down another pair of free throws to secure the win for Los Angeles, 105-103.
The Lakers used energy, guts, and experience to come from 13 points down and literally stole this game from the Nuggets, who played well enough to win. The Nuggets were ahead the majority of the game and their front line destroyed the Lakers by scoring 68 points.
The problem was that Denver missed 12 free throws, didn’t get the defensive stops they needed and made some bad decisions at the end of the game. Anthony and Billups were nothing short of spectacular and the Nuggets wasted an excellent performance by the duo.
This was an epic battle of basketball played at its highest level. Bryant refused to lose this matchup as evidenced by his 40 points, but a point made clearer by the six clutch free throws down the stretch.
Bryant was able to will his team to victory in game one but he will need help from his teammates who were wildly inconsistent to win the series. The same could be said for Anthony.
It will be difficult for the Nuggets to recover from the loss mentally, but they’ve no choice but to forget about it. Game two in the series is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. PST.