It’s pretty amazing how similar these two conference finals matchups are.
In the East, the Cavs are getting out-hustled by an Orlando team that is playing together and with more of a purpose and sense of urgency. The same has unfolded out West, where the Lakers, for the second straight series, look great one game and appear to go through the motions the next.
Denver’s 120-101 win over the Lakers at the Pepsi Center on Monday night exposed the Lakers for what they are. They’re not underachieving. They’re not turning it on and off. They’re just not that great.
L.A. at this point has two players who you know are going to show up, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. No one else has proven they can be counted on.
Denver, even with an injured and ill Carmelo Anthony, outplayed L.A. from start to finish to tie this series at two games apiece as it heads back to Staples Center for Game 5 on Wednesday. The Nuggets out-rebounded the Lakers 58-40, outscored them 52-34 in points in the paint, finished with a 42-24 advantage in bench points and never trailed again after taking a 2-1 lead.
“They just kicked our (butt),” Bryant said. “It’s not like we can turn it on, turn it off. They just whooped us, period. They whooped us on the glass. They whooped us to loose balls. There’s no switch. There was no switch. We played hard. They played harder and better, period.”
Denver’s rebounding was more dominant than it looked on the final stat sheet. The Nuggets had 20 offensive rebounds to the Lakers’ nine. Denver got at least 13 rebounds from Kenyon Martin, Nene and Chris Andersen. That trio kept the Lakers from closing out defensive possessions by securing rebounds and it led to too many second-chance scoring opportunities.
What stood out, though, is how the Lakers didn’t have anyone remotely interested in matching Denver’s physicality and putting a body on someone to limit the Nuggets’ second chances. I remember one possession in which Andersen needlessly dove on the floor for a loose ball following a Lakers miss even though L.A.’s players were back-peddling down court. Andersen was surrounded by three white jerseys and still sacrificed his body.
Lamar Odom is about as big a non-factor as you’ll ever see. Derek Fisher is not having an impact on either end, and he’s forcing Bryant to work harder because he has to defend Chauncey Billups at times. Trevor Ariza lost his shooting touch in Denver and seemingly forgot he has the tools to defend Carmelo Anthony. He’s another one who’s making things more difficult for Bryant since Bryant has to defend Melo on occasion as well. And Sasha Vujacic has yet to do much of anything positive throughout the entire postseason.
The Lakers’ only saving grace is that they have No. 24 and home court advantage. This series will go seven games. It will because the Lakers can’t win on the road. It will because the Lakers can’t step on a team when it’s down. It will because L.A. isn’t getting anything from anyone other than Bryant and Gasol. It will because Denver is the better team.