|Denver would rather cover Pau Gasol (nine points on 4-of-11 shooting) than a off-target guard. (US Presswire)|
It wasn't Andrew Bynum's latest immature episode, calling closeout games "kind of easy" because teams facing elimination "tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning." Although, this certainly didn't help, because the Lakers did not come out and play hard in the beginning, and they didn't play well at all, at any point. Except for Bryant, at the end.
"I almost bailed us out, that's what happened," said Bryant, who had 43 points -- 14 in a dizzying fourth quarter -- as the Lakers lost to the Nuggets 102-99 in Game 5 of their first-round series. The Nuggets, trailing 3-2, sent the series back to Denver for Game 6 on Thursday night.
"I started making shots left and right, and that's not something that we can use to rely on to get us to a championship," Bryant said. "It can't be that. We all have to step up, we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that sense of urgency and energy."
The Bynum quote was the last thing the Nuggets saw in the pregame film session; coach George Karl, ever the motivator and philosopher, made sure of that by splicing it in like some Hollywood director.
"In general, I think he's wrong," Karl said. "I've been blessed to win a few series, and it's hard to win the next game, and the hardest thing in the world is to win the fourth game. I don't care who you're playing. It's hard to win that fourth game. ... The euphoria of being a human being is when you win and you're ahead, there's a little bit of a letdown. So his feeling on closeouts is a little different than my history of being in them, and so I told my players that."
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Andre Miller, the crafty veteran who had 24 points and eight assists off the bench -- controlling the game until Bryant started bombing and making from the outside in the fourth -- wholeheartedly agreed. It was Miller who delivered what JaVale McGee described as a "real emotional speech" about Bynum's quote before the Nuggets went out for warmups.
This was the JaVale McGee who represented the Nuggets in the press conference room afterward, and deservedly so, since he nearly outscored Bynum and Pau Gasol by himself. McGee had 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting with 14 rebounds, assaulting the rim with a variety of dunks that rendered Bynum and Gasol helpless.
"Usually, I'm nowhere near the playoffs," said McGee, acquired from the Wizards for Nene at the trade deadline. "Usually, my last game is the regular season in April. I definitely didn't want this to be my last game."
The Lakers, other than Bryant, clearly didn't want this to be their last game of the first round. Which brings us to the real problem: It wasn't Bynum's ill-conceived philosophizing on closeout games that caused the Lakers to lose. It was something far more sinister, and more troubling. It was the fact that the Lakers have the biggest size and talent advantage in the paint in the NBA and got mauled in that very paint, 58-44.
Imagine having two fabulous golf clubs and having them glued in your golf bag, rendering them useless. This was the Lakers with Bynum and Gasol on Tuesday night, and it is a problem that will keep Bryant from his coveted sixth championship if someone -- preferably someone other than Bryant -- doesn't fix it.
"Our supporting cast has to help out Pau and Andrew in particular in loosening up the defense," Bryant said. "They just sat in Pau's lap, sat in Andrew's lap, and we weren't able to knock down shots and make them pay."
Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions had hit big jump shots down the stretch in Game 4, but neither was heard from in Game 5. Matt Barnes was 5 for 14, including 1 for 6 from 3-point range -- making him 2 for 20 in the series from long distance.
The trio that's supposed to knock down those shots Bryant is referring to, thus opening up the paint for Bynum and Gasol? That would be Blake, Sessions and Barnes, who were a combined 11 for 32.
So the easy place to assign blame for the Lakers' missed opportunity Tuesday night, Bynum, was only partly to blame. He said a dumb -- not to mention incorrect -- thing, and was powerless to change it with a defender in front of him and behind him the entire game.
"They're committing three people," Bynum said. "It is what it is. I just have to find another way to get the ball and be effective. They have the ball, they're looking to get it to me. It's not like they're not trying."
By the time Bynum finally got an advantage in the paint, securing Ty Lawson on his hip after a switch, it was too late. Bryant had long since decided it was time to take over, hitting his first of three consecutive 3-pointers to cut what had been a 15-point lead to four, 94-90, with 2:33 left. The next one gave him 40 points, and the next one -- with Danilo Gallinari up on him in perfect defensive position in the corner -- gave him 43 and cut the Nuggets' lead to 98-96 with less than a minute left.
But that was it from Bryant on this night. That was all the hero ball that the Lakers deserved.
"I used to have a coach who used to say, 'The basketball gods would not allow us to win the game today because we didn't deserve it,'" Bryant said, evoking memories of the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. "So that's what I'll hang my hat on."
Bryant can still score 43, or more, when he wants to or has to. But this is not a championship formula for the Lakers. Bryant's sixth title, if it comes, will not be delivered on his fingertips alone. Not now; not after 16 years, and not with two of the most gifted 7-footers in the NBA smothered by double teams that simply will not loosen without someone else putting the ball in the basket.
Even McGee, immortalized on YouTube with his previous team after running back on defense when the Wizards had the ball, has figured out how to beat the Lakers.
"It's really hard to stop Kobe," McGee said. "Kobe's a great player. But if we stop the bigs, we can let Kobe do what he does and that will really help us out."
That, apparently, was covered in George Karl's film session, too.