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Scott Howard-Cooper

Danilo Gallinari (right) and the Nuggets were cut off at key moments throughout Game 4.
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Star-free Nuggets again fail to deliver in playoff moment

Posted May 7 2012 10:33AM

DENVER -- What a night. What a bizarre, unpredictable, surreal Sunday night at Pepsi Center, with a woman looking dazed as she walked on the court near the action, an assist serving as Kobe Bryant's biggest contribution to the Lakers' win.

All this while one point guard, Steve Blake, helped turn Game 4 in Los Angeles' favor with a blocked shot while another point guard, Andre Miller, hurt his Nuggets with an offensive goal tending. Typical Blake and Miller, playing above the rim.

Except at the end, when normalcy intruded. The Lakers delivered when it mattered and the Nuggets did not. The team with experience and several go-to options prevailed over the team relying on a lot of players with as much playoff exposure in their lives as L.A. has had in a single playoff runs past.

With the heartbreak still fresh, Denver coach George Karl was asked about the lack of a closer and authoritatively swatted the theory into the upper deck with everything short of a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag: "Our shots at the end of the game were better than their shots" and "I can't complain about our end-of-the-game scoring" and "Go-to guy versus shot selection. I think our shots were pretty good."

But playoffs are about stars conquering the pressure situations, and the Nuggets are in the playoffs for the second year in a row and have a pair of victories in nine tries. Of the seven losses, five are by four points or less, including the 92-88 setback Sunday. They are good enough to stay close.

The competition obviously has something to do with it -- the Thunder were clearly superior in 2011 and the Lakers are clearly the better team this time. And if hanging in is the goal, congratulations. But nothing changes the fact that the Nuggets have consistently worked their way into places to do real damage in the playoffs and almost always failed to capitalize.

They certainly had a chance Sunday. Bryant missed 15 of 25 shots and had one more assist (six) than turnovers, Andrew Bynum was solid but hardly overpowering with 19 points and seven rebounds in a nice response to his Game 3 face plant and Pau Gasol had 13 points, nine boards and six assists. The Lakers were vulnerable, in the fourth quarter in particular.

Karl can be happy with the shots all he wants, but it's not just getting the shots. Making them tends to be important as well, and the Nuggets did not make them. Again.

Whose shoulders are they supposed to jump on to ride to victory? The Nuggets don't have that player yet. Maybe it becomes Danilo Gallinari, but only if he becomes more consistent. Maybe it becomes Ty Lawson, but he is a long way from moving into that superstar class of point guards.

As the Nuggets failed to seize the opportunity -- the Lakers missing five of six free throws in the fourth quarter, with the feared Bynum-Gasol big-man tandem combining for just four shots that period -- it was clear they needed someone with the ability to strike fear in a defense. Carmelo Anthony could do that. Dumping him on the Knicks may have been a good trade that set Denver up well for the future. It may have resulted in surprising success in the regular season.

But stars win in the playoffs.

Bryant may have gone one of five from the field in the fourth, but he found Blake and delivered the pass that became the 3-pointer that sealed the win. Gasol may not have had any glittery moments in the decisive quarter, but he had a couple offensive rebounds that led to baskets and set a jarring screen on Gallinari that left the Nuggets playing four-on-five defense on the possession that ended in a critical Ramon Sessions 3-pointer.

The last 50 seconds were unusual for the Lakers only because Sessions and Blake were taking the clutch shots. No one came through for the Nuggets, even though they liked the shots. Al Harrington almost did with a driving layup, but Miller took the ball off the rim. Gallinari almost did, but missed the 3-pointer.

"Playmaking comes in down the stretch," Denver shooting guard Arron Afflalo said. "When it's winning time, you have to go out there and make plays, get defensive rebounds and make big shots. We didn't do that tonight."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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