Can Lakers pass ultimate road test?
Lakers can prove their championship readiness by closing out the Nuggets on the road
If the NBA playoffs are a learning experience, then road closeout games are the doctoral theses.
The Lakers have a chance to demonstrate their championship readiness Friday night when they take their 3-2 Western Conference finals lead into Denver's Pepsi Center with a berth in the NBA Finals at stake. Yet it's easy to be cynical about their ability to get it done. When the Lakers had the chance to squeeze the neck of the Houston Rockets in their previous series, they lost their final two road games by a total of 27 points to a team without its top two players. They say they won't suffer the same lapses this time around, but center Pau Gasol sounds like he's learned enough in his season and a half with the team to realize you shouldn't listen too closely to Lakers rhetoric when it comes to avoiding a Houston repeat.
"We said the same thing about Game 4 [in Denver] and we got our ass beat by 20," Gasol said. "They're different teams, different situations. Obviously it's the same game, the same opportunity to get a win and close them out. We know how hard it is. But we can do it."
If that sounds like an edgier Gasol than we're used to it's right in line with the way he played in Game 5, when his steals and blocked shots were a crucial part of the Lakers' defensive stand that gave them control of the game. The Lakers held the highest-scoring team in the playoffs (110 points per game coming in) to 38 points in the second half and kept the Nuggets scoreless on 11 consecutive possessions.
"They got really aggressive," Denver point guard Chauncey Billups said. "They picked up and tried to trap harder and they were just active. When you're making a run, especially when you're at home, it's easy to be like that."
Yes, you can hear the Nuggets' skepticism about the Lakers' ability to duplicate that effort on the road.
"I don't think so," said guard Dahntay Jones when asked if they could. "The home team has that advantage. When you're home you can go on runs and your crowd can save you and push you through tough times."
And the home team tends to get the benefit from the officials, an increasingly contentious point in this series. Lakers coach Phil Jackson's comments about the officiating following the Lakers' loss in Game 4 got him a $25,000 fine from the league office. The Nuggets were fuming after Game 5, in which they were whistled for 30 fouls to the Lakers' 22.
Jackson even offered a rare acknowledgement that the Lakers got a break, finishing a comment about his team's defense by saying, "We got the benefit of the non-calls in this situation."
Nuggets coach George Karl got hit with a series of direct questions about the officials on his off day and had to preface his response with a little mantra whispered to himself: "Stay strong, try not to get fined."
"We believe that we're going to go out and the officiating's not going to a problem," he finally said, probably with more hope than conviction.
If it is a problem, then how will the Nuggets react? This is a group that can easily fall prey to the three T's -- turnovers, technical fouls and three-pointers -- when things don't go their way. Karl has gotten defensive about his team, particularly the notion that they're the new "Bad Boys" of the NBA.
"You guys are saying you've got to have savvy and poise to be a championships team," he said. "You think the Detroit Pistons have a poise that the San Antonio Spurs have? No, they're different. There's a different way of handling emotional, passionate, intense players. I'm not going to tell them to stop that because I think it stops them from becoming a competitor."
The teams that say they need that emotional edge are rarely the ones that win championships. It's just as likely that the Nuggets will find a way to beat themselves as it is that the Lakers will defeat them.
The Lakers have plenty of their own concerns, primarily whether the other players can be as effective as they were in Game 5 when the Denver defense held Kobe Bryant to 22 points on 13 shots. The Nuggets are crowding Bryant on every drive. He didn't try to take on the army himself and looked for his teammates Wednesday night; on the road he'll have to find a way to score. This is when superstars are called upon, particularly after LeBron James upped the ante with his uber-triple-double Thursday night.
"I'll just read the defense," Bryant said. "Denver, they're not going to let me isolate somebody and go by them. They're not going to let me go one-on-one. I have to trust my teammates and make plays. Then when those lanes open up I take advantage of them."
One benefit to his fewer shot attempts in Game 5: He felt a little fresher the day afterward. Jackson used him for 45 minutes that night and he will probably need to stay on the court that long if the Lakers want to win Game 6. Bryant was the only Lakers starter with a positive plus/minus for most of Game 4 in Denver, before it all fell apart for them in the fourth quarter.
Bryant remembers what it was like when the Lakers were ruthless on the road. One of the coldest, greediest shots I've ever seen was his 3-pointer that did in the Spurs in Game 2 of the 2001 Western Conference finals, after the Lakers had already stunned them with a victory in San Antonio in Game 1. Afterward, I told Bryant that he'd cut an artery on the Spurs.
"Let 'em bleed," he sneered, with a look just as dismissive as the one he wore after he made the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 3 in Denver, the turning point of this series.
That's his mindset, which is why he discounted the notion that the Lakers have a "free swing" in Game 6 since they always have the backup of Game 7 on deck.
"I don't believe in free swings," Bryant said. "The playoffs, I don't believe you can think that way. Every swing you take, you've got to make sure it's a good one."
Champions understand that. If the Lakers do, they'll be the winners of the West. If they don't, they'll be just another one of the four teams still playing to get to the Finals.