It started as a simple baseline out-of-bounds play.
The Nuggets had put together a 12-2 run to close within three of the Lakers.
Chauncey Billups took the inbound.
Denver put three across the foul line extended with Linas Kleiza on the three-point arc.
It didn’t take long to sniff out the play’s first option.
Carmelo Anthony, lined up on the opposite side of the floor, would weave through a pair of screens and come out on the ball side.
Chris Andersen set a screen at the elbow and stepped toward the basket.
Kleiza moved into the spot vacated by Andersen.
Kenyon Martin provided a safety valve on the opposite side of the floor.
At this point the play abandoned its script.
Whether the Nuggets had previously identified a flaw in the Lakers defense, or Chauncey Billups turned to his instincts, the point guard’s basket could prove to have more value than the two points indicated on the Staples Center scoreboard.
As Anthony came off Andersen’s screen, he left behind the Lakers’ Trevor Ariza.
Kobe Bryant, who lined up in front of Billups, recognized the situation and stepped in to help with Anthony.
With his back completely turned in the direction of the ball, Bryant provided an easy target. Billups tossed the ball off Bryant’s back, moved inbounds, retrieved it, pivoted, made one dribble, and used the window for the deuce.
In the end the two points might not have mattered because the Nuggets won the game by three.
But Billups’s play carries more meaning than the two points.
Bryant started the play in front of Billups with his back to the ball. This strategy could work because Billups would not have enough room to step inbounds and catch the ball.
As soon as Bryant left the baseline, he became vulnerable.
Bryant was not the only Laker caught out of position. Both Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom did not see the ball leave the hands of Billups.
Moments later, Bryant found himself in one of those intrusive halftime interviews that leave true sports fans wondering how the time spent indulging the media affects the game’s outcome.
As Bryant exited the floor, the in-studio analysts commented how his brief responses must be the result of his concern for the Lakers’ poor play in closing the first half.
On the other hand, Bryant’s terse remarks probably resulted from his wounded ego.
Not only had Bryant been made a fool of on the play, but his teammates provided no support. The Lakers star stepped out to help a teammate, but while Billups used Bryant’s back, no Laker had Bryant’s back.
The play should have fueled the Lakers efforts for the second half. Instead, Los Angeles surrendered home court advantage.
After the game, Billups commented that he had not done that since high school. The Nuggets point guard stopped short. He should have mentioned that he hadn’t found a player since high school who would put himself in position to allow such a play.
In the end, the basket counts for two points. But Billups’s bucket sends a message—throw out the rules of decorum. The Nuggets will do whatever it takes to win.
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