Nuggets avoid elimination, beat Lakers to force Game 6
There was some question about whether the Nuggets would go quietly into the offseason as they faced an elimination game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their response was unequivocal: Absolutely not.
Showing no fear of the big stage, the Nuggets stood up to the Lakers at Staples Center on Tuesday night, building a double-digit lead and holding on for a 102-99 victory to stay alive in their Western Conference playoff series.
“It was all about energy and guts,” Nuggets point guard Andre Miller said. “We showed some heart.”
While Miller was a catalyst all night and cool in the clutch, JaVale McGee was a force in the paint for Denver, scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half to help the Nuggets withstand a 43-point night by Lakers star Kobe Bryant.
Los Angeles still leads the best-of-seven series 3-2, with Game 6 Thursday at Pepsi Center.
“Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” said McGee, who played three-plus seasons with the Washington Wizards before being acquired by Denver on March 15. “My last game of the year is usually at the end of the regular season in April. I didn’t want my last game to be tonight.”
None of McGee’s teammates looked ready to pack up and go home, either.
Miller orchestrated the offense to the tune of 24 points, eight assists and one turnover, while Arron Afflalo enjoyed his best game of the series with 19 points, five rebounds and three steals. In all, five Nuggets scored in double figures, and Ty Lawson contributed with nine points and eight assists.
“I think we all matured today,” Lawson said. “From JaVale to me to all the young players, we all matured, and I think we’re going to keep maturing.”
Denver’s poise certainly showed throughout the game. Each time the Lakers made a run, the Nuggets responded with a timely shot, an emphatic dunk or a series of defensive stops.
McGee was in the middle of it all, converting alley oops, chasing down rebounds (14) and contesting shots at the rim.
“He’s really improved his game,” Bryant said. “He’s seems to be coming into his own in this playoff series and showing a lot of versatility and skill around the basket. Defensively as well, he’s changing shots, so he’s blossoming in this series.”
McGee gave the Nuggets a 90-75 lead when he fought for an offensive rebound and then drove to the basket for a one-hand slam with 6:35 remaining. The play brought Denver’s bench to its feet and elicited boos from the Staples Center crowd.
Thanks to Bryant, it didn’t take long for the boos to turn to cheers.
Bryant, averaging 37.3 points in three home games in the series, made four three-pointers in a 3:46 span to cut the deficit to 99-96 with 59.1 seconds remaining.
The lead was still three after Miller made a pair of free throws with 12.8 seconds left, but Bryant and Ramon Sessions could not connect from three-point range on L.A.’s final possession.
“Thank god we had a big enough lead,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “As I said before the game, I didn’t expect us to win by double-digits. I’m just happy to win the game.”
Despite trailing in the series, the Nuggets carried themselves with confidence upon their return to Staples Center. They also channeled some anger upon hearing Lakers center Andrew Bynum suggest that Denver might “fold” if Los Angeles could get out to a quick start in Game 5.
Karl reminded his players of Bynum’s words during the morning shootaround and again during the team’s pregame film session.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world to win the fourth game,” Karl said. “I don’t care who you’re playing, it’s hard to win that fourth game. The euphoria of being a human being … when you win, there’s a little bit of a letdown. His feeling on close-outs are a little different than my history of being in them.”
In the playoffs for the 21st time in 24 NBA seasons, Karl improved his record to 23-20 when facing elimination.
That record will change again Thursday night in Game 6 as the Nuggets look to push the third-seeded Lakers to the limit.
“We’re going back home to play in front of our home crowd,” Lawson said. “That’s big for us. We’re going to have a lot of energy in the building. I think the series just started now.”
NOTES: Nuggets forward Corey Brewer needed three stitches to close a cut below his left eye after he was inadvertently elbowed by McGee midway through the fourth quarter. He is listed as probable for Game 6 ... The Lakers had won seven consecutive games when having a chance to close out a series ... Miller finished one assist shy of tying his playoff career-high, while his two three-pointers matched a postseason best ... Denver rookie Kenneth Faried went 5-for-5 from the field and finished with 10 points and nine rebounds.