In my last post I finished by saying I was going to go into every game without any expectations because you never know what you're going to get with this Lakers team. To prove my point, out of the blue Phil Jackson decided to sit Kobe Bryant. I'm sure the other team vying for playoff positioning couldn't have been too happy about that. But it sure made the Nuggets' day. And to make their smile a little wider, replacing Kobe Bryant in the starting lineup was Sasha Vujacic. It was Vujacic's first start in over three years.
The Lakers could've used Kobe (the most ridiculously obvious statement of the day). With the Lakers trailing by two with 12 seconds to go, Derek Fisher got the isolation call (and by that I mean there was no play called at all) and his shot was blocked by Carmelo Anthony. Nuggets won 98-96.
Picking up the scoring in Bryant's absence was Ron Artest. It sure wasn't Vujacic picking up the scoring. Sure, Vujacic had his highest scoring performance in two months but that's not tough to do when you hardly play. He finished with 8 points on 3 of 12 shooting. Artest on the other hand was very effective. He tied his season-high of 22 points, hitting on 7 of 11 shots including 3 of 4 three-pointers.
But Artest had troubles on the defensive end. He drew the near-impossible task of guarding Carmelo Anthony. Artest often did a great job on defense but Carmelo can knock down just about any shot. Anthony finished with 31 on 11 of 20 shooting.
The game began to get away from the Lakers in the 2nd quarter when J.R. Smith caught fire. Smith hit 6 of his 9 shots in the quarter including four three-pointers. He poured in 16 points to push the Nuggets to a 10-point halftime lead. The Lakers didn't close out on his shots well but I'm not sure it would've made a difference. Smith is one of those players that gets in a zone and can hit from anywhere on the court.
It looked like the game you'd expect from the struggling Lakers without their star player. But then in the 3rd quarter they showed signs of life. Through better defense, a few three-pointers falling and offensive rebounds the Lakers stormed back from 15 down to actually leading by one at the end of the 3rd, 74-73.
The biggest factor in the comeback was offensive rebounding. The Lakers had 17 offensive boards that led to 23 points. It really showed how much the Nuggets miss Kenyon Martin. They aren't nearly the same physical team without him. Even Vujacic got an offensive rebound and it actually led to him making a shot (a rarity). His three-pointer gave the Lakers their biggest lead, 87-80.
The difference in the game was the Nuggets had their closer and the Lakers did not. After re-entering the game in the fourth with 5:30 remaining, Anthony took over the game. He scored 9 of the Nuggets' final 13 points. He also got the benefit of the doubt from the officials as well. With under a minute remaining he rose up and shot a mid-range jumper and after the miss the whistle sounded. Lamar Odom was called for the foul because how else could Anthony have missed the shot?
But one bad call doesn't lose a game. What lost the game for the Lakers was a lack of any call. With 12 seconds remaining, Phil Jackson decided not to call a timeout and draw up a play and let the Lakers figure it out. Well, the result was an utter disaster. Derek Fisher was one-on-one with Carmelo Anthony and Fisher dribbled around before attempting to shoot over Anthony - a defender seven inches taller than him. Anthony blocked the shot and the game was over. Fisher should never be the guy in isolation. He has hit a lot of game-winning shots but they've almost all been because a superstar gets double-teamed. Why not feed Gasol? Odom? Artest? Vujacic? Alright, not Vujacic but there were certainly better options than Fisher. In fact, the Lakers guards were horrendous all night. Vujacic, Fisher, Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar combined to shoot 11 of 43. The Lakers' frontcourt shot 50 percent. So why go to Fisher?The good news is the Lakers need just one more win to secure the top spot in the West. The better news? They play the Timberwolves today.