By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted May 20 2009 8:19AM
LOS ANGELES -- Given the opening in the first two rounds, the Nuggets didn't fail to connect. They reached back time and again in the fourth quarter to turn close games into routs.
Ask the Hornets or Mavericks about Denver's ability to finish. They took it right on the chin all too often.
"Every time we got a chance to knock them out," Nuggets guard J.R. Smith said, "we did."
But when the Lakers found themselves on the ropes in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the haymaker never landed. Denver tried, of course, with its best puncher lining up the kill shot with seven minutes left.
Doing his best Smokin' Joe Frazier, Carmelo Anthony found himself stepping into a wide-open 3-pointer that would have given the Nuggets a 10-point lead. Considering every other shot Melo took from downtown Tuesday night went down -- and he took five -- and the big-shot heroics Denver has made look routine through the postseason so far, the miss was jarring.
"We were right where we wanted to be," Smith said.
After the miss, so were the Lakers. They just needed a glimmer of hope. A chance to survive the flurry and counter in the next round. The defending West champs turned to their vets to finish the fight with a flourish.
Kobe Bryant responded, as he's done so many times before, authoring an 18-point fourth quarter on his way to a game-high 40. MIA against the Rockets, Derek Fisher bounced back with his finest performance of the Playoffs. Fisher's 3-pointer gave L.A. its first lead of the fourth with 2 1/2 minutes left.
So instead of easing into another easy victory in a postseason run stocked full of easy victories, the Nuggets were put in a foreign spot. Not only is this the franchise's first trip to the conference finals in 24 years, but this was the first time the Nuggets were in position to trail in a series.
"We're right there," Kenyon Martin said. "A couple of plays here, a couple of free throws there and there's a different outcome."
The Nuggets' closing recipe was pretty simple: Suffocating defense, and Melo and Chauncey Billups taking and making clutch shot after clutch shot. Sure, they played and lost a couple of close games to New Orleans and Dallas, but the Nuggets were always in control, up 2-0, when the nail-biters cropped up.
These Lakers -- Kobe and Fisher, especially -- know what to do when they're up against it.
"That is a good advantage," Nene admitted.
One the Lakers used to "steal" the opener. The home team protected its court despite trailing for the vast majority of Game 1. The Nuggets led by 13 early and were still up 99-97 going into the final 98 seconds.
Bryant scored the Lakers' last six points at the line.
"They have a great closer," said Smith, whose struggles (2-of-7 shooting) mirrored the rest of Denver's bench. "Kobe is probably the best closer in the game. When he's got the ball, it's either two things are going to happen -- he's going to score or he's going to get fouled."
Melo could only shake his head at the opportunity lost, the mistakes made and the failure to close. His 39 points in 40 minutes weren't quite enough.
"We had a lot of chances to win the basketball game," Anthony said. "I know a lot of people think it came down to that [Trevor Ariza] steal and 30 seconds left. But us missing 12 free throws, 22-10 [deficit in] second-chance points. That's a lot. You can't win no game like that."
The Nuggets made few missteps through the first two rounds. Maybe the six-day layoff factored into some of the sloppiness. How often is Billups, a 91-percent free-throw shooter, going to go 2-of-7 at the line?
"We definitely let this one slip," Smith said. "A lot of missed free throws and unnecessary turnovers. Something we didn't do in the first two series and it cost us."
More than the extended break after dispatching Dallas, the Nuggets had to feel the weight of the moment. They're facing the No. 1 seed with a trip to The Finals at stake. The Lakers welcome the pressure. For the Nuggets, despite dominating two playoff teams over the last month, this is new.
Asked if winning in such dramatic fashion gives L.A. the upper hand in matters upstairs, Pau Gasol said simply: "We'll see." And Kobe wasn't about the sell the upstart underdogs short.
"They'll come back even harder on Thursday," he said. "And they had an opportunity to get one. It didn't happen."
This time, the punch didn't land.
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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