Former Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and late owner Dr. Jerry Buss had enough of the mediocre success displayed during the mid-2000s. It took a patient attitude from both the players and the organization until the right outcome came, as did during the 2007-08 season.
That franchise-altering acquisition was Pau Gasol, immediately shifting the mindset of a battle-tested team heading into the playoffs. Although the early 2000s was the peak of a dynasty, the middle of the decade proved to be a reality check for Kobe Bryant’s career.
The Lakers were in somewhat of a rebuild throughout his prime, until the organization pulled the trigger on trading for Gasol. With the ideal complement to Bryant, head coach Phil Jackson helped this team turn the page towards legitimate championship aspirations.
They assembled a 57-25 record, winning the Pacific division and clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They were pitted against the No. 8 seed Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs.
Denver was a respected team that was capable of keeping up offensively with most high-caliber squads. That was evident two games into the series, as both sides scored over 100 in both games.
However, the Lakers were able to escape with double-digit victories at Staples Center, with the series shifting to Pepsi Center for Game 3 on April 26, 2008. The Nuggets entered the contest desperate for a victory, relying on their grit and the altitude increase to chip away at the Lakers.
The first quarter started off in favor of the Lakers, as they maintained a small lead throughout. The pick-and-roll between Gasol and Bryant proved to be deadly, as the execution consistently lead to open opportunities. Both Lamar Odom and Gasol set the tone offensively, as the Lakers held a 23-20 lead 12 minutes in.
From there, the Lakers managed to pull ahead by seven points, taking a 53-46 lead into halftime. With the Nuggets falling more and more behind, the third quarter was the nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. Los Angeles emerged from halftime shooting lights out, knocking down shots whether via their offense or isolations.
Although Bryant took the scoring charge, the entire team contributed towards cementing their comfortable lead. Bryant knocked in two jump shots over Kenyon Martin in the first minute of the second half, setting the pace.
He hit double-digit points with a few minutes left in the quarter, but also found Derek Fisher open for two threes late in the quarter. At the same time, Luke Walton used his all-around abilities to impact the game from different angles.
Walton already made his presence felt in the series, with two high scoring outputs under his belt. However, he was more of a facilitator while the game remained close.
He had a nice full-court assist to a streaking Bryant, as well as a beautiful backdoor feed to Fisher for the layup. Jackson always respected the game of Walton, eventually mentoring and molding Walton into a coaching figure as injuries started to end his career.
Walton was then able to create for himself in the fourth quarter, starting off with a three-point play after getting undercut on a layup. He was able to work around J.R. Smith in the post, using a spin move to finish another layup.
The Lakers cruised to a 102-84 victory, earning a 3-0 lead in a series that would eventually end in a sweep. Walton finished Game 3 with 15 points, five rebounds, five assists, a steal and one block. The eventual Lakers head coach made an impact throughout the series, including 18 points in Game 1 and 16 points in Game 2, shooting a combined 19-for-25 through three contests.
Bryant led the team in Game 3 22 points and eight assists, while Gasol chipped in 14 points, five assists and three blocks. Odom had 14 points, seven rebounds and two steals, with the combined effort all but clinching the Lakers’ spot in the second round.