After taking a 3-1 series lead the Lakers dropped two consecutive games to the Denver Nuggets. Suddenly, a sure-thing second round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder became a must-win Game 7 situation at the Staples Center. The Lakers, who looked lackluster at best in their Game 6 thumping in Denver, quickly had to regain the momentum they had in the first two games of the series.
Denver, on the other hand, was looking to ride the momentum they built in Game 6 and use it to lead them to victory in Game 7. The odds, however, were certainly in Los Angeles’ favor entering the game. Heading into Saturday night, the Lakers had only lost one Game 7 at home in the history of their franchise. They had also won seven consecutive Game 7 situations at home, the latest being an epic, come from behind win over the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.
Kobe Bryant, who was sick in Game 6, was also looking to improve his Game 7 record. During his career, Bryant had only lost one Game 7 situation, in the 2006 first round at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. Coincidentally, that Lakers team also held a 3-1 series lead before allowing Phoenix to win three consecutive games and advance to the second round. Game 7 certainly was surrounded by rumors and speculation, as before the game Laker legend Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson stated that if the Lakers lost it would be the end of head coach Mike Brown’s brief tenure in Los Angeles. While the team released a statement denying this possibility, it added a little extra spice to a game that was already too hot to handle.
Nearly every game in the series was decided early on. It seemed that whichever team was able to get the early momentum carried it all the way to victory. That made the first 12 minutes very important in Game 7. However, early on neither team was able to get too far ahead of the other. There were some encouraging signs for the Lakers, however, as both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol asserted themselves early on. After rather dismal performances from both in Game 6, the Laker big men were certainly looking to make a bigger impact early in Game 7.
The Nuggets, however, weren’t about to let the Lakers intimidate them and cruise to a Game 7 victory. Led by Ty Lawson, who torched Los Angeles in Game 1, the Nuggets managed to hang with the Lakers for the duration of the quarter. Denver also got an early boost from Kenneth Faried, another player that had a big impact in Game 6. Faried scored the first two baskets for Denver, and was able to match the energy from the Staples Center crowd.
With the Nuggets holding the lead, a Steve Blake three-pointer to beat the shot clock sparked a Los Angeles run. The Lakers quickly put together seven straight points, and managed to pull ahead of Denver with time running out in the quarter. A last-second foul gave the Nuggets one more shot at the buzzer, but Al Harrington’s attempt fell just short. At the end of the first 12 minutes of play the Lakers led the Nuggets 25-24.
After a highly contested first quarter both teams were looking to put a little space between them and the opponent. With Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum on the bench, Los Angeles was hoping that Gasol and some bench players could hang onto their lead. For the most part, they managed to do so. One big contributor in the first half was Blake. After a big three-pointer to beat the clock in the first, Blake hit another three and a mid-range jump shot early on in the second quarter. This allowed Los Angeles to maintain a slight lead while their two main stars were on the bench.
The Lakers managed to pull ahead midway through the quarter, extending their lead to eight. They had a chance to push it to double-digits, but Metta World Peace took a difficult shot that fell short. Denver put together a run following the World Peace miss, and was able to crawl back within a single basket. The reason for Denver’s run was former UCLA Bruin Arron Afflalo. After connecting on several jump shots, he also got to the free throw line and kept Denver close.
After Denver managed to pull the game within two with just minutes left in the second, the Lakers went on another little run. Ramon Sessions, who had struggled mightily in the team’s previous two losses, was making it a point of emphasis to get into the paint and attack the basket. Instead of settling for outside shots like he had been doing earlier in the series, Sessions penetrated and looked to create shots for himself and his teammates. The Lakers certainly benefited from this, as Sessions scored four points in the last few minutes of the first half.
Even though it seemed like the Lakers had control of the tempo of the game for the majority of the first half, the score after the first two quarters was still quite close. With 24 minutes left to play, Los Angeles was leading the Nuggets 48-42.
The Lakers opened the third quarter looking to establish a bit more comfort against a Nuggets team that simply refused to give up. Bryant, after looking to play the role of distributor in the first half, was certainly looking more for his shot in the third quarter. He opened the third with a long three-point shot that didn’t fall, but was able to hit a few shots as the quarter progressed. Los Angeles also got a boost from Metta World Peace, who hit a big three-point basket that pushed the Lakers lead to double digits.
Los Angeles was able to push their lead to 13 halfway through the quarter. One of the reasons for the team’s success were the contributions from players besides Bryant. World Peace, who had been playing very well before being suspended, seemed to pick up right where he left off. He hit several big shots, including a rather unbelievable fading jumper from the elbow that further pushed the Lakers ahead.
Still, as they had done so many times before, the Nuggets refused to quit. The Lakers certainly seemed to be a bit complacent after building a double-digit lead, and Denver took advantage. Los Angeles was a team that had given up big leads on numerous occasions in the regular season, and were hoping to avoid this fate in Game 7.
With the Lakers seemingly in control, Ty Lawson led the Nuggets back. After torching Los Angeles in Game 6, Lawson brought Denver back late in the third. Denver put together a 9-0 run and found themselves once again tied. To make matters worse for L.A., they began to miss crucial free throws with the quarter winding down. The Lakers were suddenly unable to get anything going on offense and were giving up easy shots on defense, all the things they did wrong in the previous two games. With just 12 minutes left in the season for one of these teams, Los Angeles led Denver 69-68.
After allowing Denver to crawl back into the game in the third, the Lakers watched them overtake them early in the fourth. The Nuggets were out-hustling L.A. and beating them to nearly every loose ball. With less than two minutes gone in the final quarter, an Al Harrington three-pointer gave the Nuggets their biggest lead of the game. The crowd at the Staples Center was eerily quiet as the Lakers seemed punch-drunk. There’s no question that the Nuggets had done a far superior job of adjusting to the Lakers than the other way around.
The first four minutes of the final quarter were what you would expect from a Game 7 in the NBA post-season. Both teams were chasing after loose balls and doing whatever it took to get a little extra edge. Los Angeles once again saw Steve Blake make a positive impact, as he hit a huge three-point shot to help add a little momentum. Things got difficult for L.A. on defense, though, as the Nuggets repeatedly found themselves with open shot opportunities. One area where things were going Denver’s way was in the realm of the loose ball. A lot of the bounces off the rim ended up in the hands of Denver, and they managed to take advantage. After a huge start to the third quarter, L.A. was hoping to be coasting to victory at this point in the fourth, but the Nuggets’ unending tenacity made things difficult for the Lakers.
The Lakers finally began to take advantage of their size. On one possession Pau Gasol racked up seven rebounds attempting to tip in missed shots, and the nervous crowd began to get into the game. This was followed by another huge shot from Steve Blake, who was the team’s biggest X-factor off the bench.
The impact of Metta World Peace was certainly felt as well. He finished with double-digit scoring, but was an even bigger impact on the defensive end of the floor. After Gallinari killed Los Angeles in Game 6, World Peace’s defense shut him down in Game 7. He was visibly frustrated on the offensive end, and all of this was due to World Peace’s presence.
Despite Denver’s refusal to quit, in the end the Lakers’ size was just too much. After arguably their worst performance of the season in Game 6, both Bynum and Gasol made enormous impacts in the decisive game. George Karl was able to get the Nuggets back into the game by switching to a small lineup, but as time ran down in the fourth the L.A. size became too much. The two big men combined for over 20 offensive rebounds alone, and Los Angeles pushed it’s lead to eight with just ninety seconds left.
By the time the game ended both teams were exhausted. It was an unbelievably tough series that was contested throughout. It was the type of game where both teams deserved to win. But in the end there could only be one to move on, and that team was the Lakers. Los Angeles finished off the Nuggets in Game 7, winning 96-87.