Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried received a long pass along the baseline with the Lakers leading 95-91, late in the 4th quarter. Rather than concede the lay-up, Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake applied pressure from behind.
Somehow, Bryant was able to pry the ball away, and was off to the races down the court. After dodging one defender and body-checking another (Ty Lawson), Bryant jumped into the air and scooped the ball beneath another defender’s arms to an wide-open Andrew Bynum for an easy dunk (plus the foul). Now that’s the one-two punch the Lakers (and their fans) are accustomed to seeing.
Whether it’s a dominant defensive and rebounding night from Bynum, or yet another unbelievable scoring night for Bryant, the Lakers have a familiar look about themselves.
Bryant recently made headlines for comments he made about his belief in the Lakers’ ability to win a title this season.
“I expect to win it, absolutely…” — Bryant told Max & Marcellus of 710ESPN.
Some, like Skip Bayless (ESPN), have snickered at those remarks, and even gone as far as to question whether Bryant truly believes it. While I’m not certain whether Bayless is simply trying to steal a headline or two, if there’s anything we know about Bryant, we can be certain he is never lacking in confidence. Nor, should he be. The Denver Nuggets made several adjustments, after taking the 15-point drubbing in Game 1. Lawson was much more aggressive (25 points, seven assists), the Denver centers played along the perimeter in order to draw Bynum away from the basket, and they even tried switching to a longer defender on an aggressive Bryant in Corey Brewer.
None of it worked.
Sure, the Nuggets pulled to within a few possessions down the stretch, but sequences like the one described above sealed the deal as the Lakers took a 2-0 lead in this (best-of-seven) opening round series. All they’ve done is protect their home-court. True, but it is the way they’ve been able to win those games is what is most impressive. Bynum is completely locked in, Gasol has been sharp and active, and Bryant looks rejuvenated and crisp following that rest he received down the stretch of the season.
In MWP’s absence, Mike Brown has shortened his rotation, and he continues to get timely contributions from the bench. While Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Jordan Hill only scored eight points combined, it was the timely block by Barnes and the double-digit rebounds from Hill (10) that helped make the difference throughout the game.
This series is by no means over, but the Lakers can take that aforementioned confidence on the road to Denver. Having started the year 3-9 on the road, the Lakers were a much tougher road team down the stretch. Much like the effort the Lakers were able to collectively muster in a recent road game versus the Spurs (without Bryant), this team will need a total team effort to defeat the pesky Nuggets in the altitude of Denver.
The Nuggets were the highest scoring team in the league (104 points per game) throughout the regular season. A mark Brown’s Lakers have been able to hold them beneath over the first two games of the series. Known for his attention to detail, Brown is now charged with getting yet another maximum effort out of his depleted roster.
The playoffs are not a forgiving time, so a setback won’t be as acceptable as in the regular season. If the Lakers are able to limit transition, continue playing effective/efficient on offense, and maintain focus upon the team concept, they should be in good shape.
If they keep getting performances out of Bryant and Bynum like they did in Game Two (65 points, 13 rebounds, three steals, three blocks combined), these Lakers won’t have much to worry about at all.
Something tells me, judging by the look in Bryant and Bynum’s eyes, this squad won’t be satisfied with simply attempting to steal a game in Denver. They have the look of a team that isn’t willing to get ahead of themselves, but definitely wants to send a message to the rest of the league.
Friday night, in Denver, the Lakers have their first opportunity to do just that.