The Denver Nuggets plastered Andrew Bynum’s words all over their locker room and across their minds, drawing fiery inspiration from the Lakers center’s declaration that closeout playoff games are sometimes easy when an opponent quits.
The young Nuggets rode that emotion to a big lead and a landmark victory – only after Kobe Bryant reminded them almost nothing comes easily for anybody in the NBA playoffs.
Andre Miller scored 24 points, including two free throws with 12.8 seconds left, and Denver survived Bryant’s late scoring barrage in a 43-point performance, avoiding playoff elimination with a 102-99 victory over Los Angeles in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
The third-seeded Lakers are one win away from a second-round date with Oklahoma City, but the Nuggets forced Los Angeles to board a plane for Denver on Wednesday. Coach George Karl gratefully fed Bynum’s offhanded post-practice comment to his players, and they played like a team that isn’t going anywhere.
”I’ve been blessed to win a few series, and 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. … His feeling on closeouts is a little different than mine.”
Game 6 is Thursday night in Denver.
”We still have to go take care of business at home,” Miller said. ”Nothing is a gimme against this team. If we can take care of home and force a Game 7, anything can happen.”
JaVale McGee had 21 points and 14 rebounds for the sixth-seeded Nuggets, who trimmed the Lakers’ series lead to 3-2, but only after a hair-raising finish. Denver had a 15-point lead midway through the fourth quarter against the lifeless Lakers, but Bryant engineered a stunning comeback before his final three shots missed.
”That’s true, closeouts can be easy,” Bryant said. ”Tonight wasn’t one of those nights. … Did it pump them up? Probably. You never want to give anybody bulletin board material, but if you’re going to be a champion, you’ve got to play through things like that.”
Bryant scored 12 points over the final 4:45, hitting four 3-pointers that trimmed the Nuggets’ lead to 98-96 with 59 seconds left. Bryant then missed a potential tying 5-footer and a 3-pointer, but Denver missed two of four free throws before Ramon Sessions hit a 3-pointer with 12.8 seconds left, trimming the Nuggets’ lead to one point.
Los Angeles had two more chances to tie after the veteran Miller’s free throws, but Bryant and Sessions missed 3-pointers near the buzzer.
”I wouldn’t say the energy kicked in in the fourth quarter,” Bryant said. ”I almost bailed us out, is what happened. That’s something you can’t rely on if you’re going to win a championship.”
Arron Afflalo scored a career playoff-high 19 points and Danilo Gallinari added 14 for the Nuggets, while rookie Kenneth Faried had 10 points and nine rebounds. Miller scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and 17 in the second half, calmly leading his young teammates to the win.
The Nuggets still must win two games to advance to the second round for just the second time in nine years, but they have already accomplished something rare by winning Game 5. Los Angeles had closed out a playoff series on the first try in 11 of its previous 12 opportunities, and the Lakers won 12 of their last 13 closeout games under departed coach Phil Jackson.
”It definitely means a lot, but we’re still down, and we still have games to win – in a row, at that,” McGee said. ”It’s really hard to stop Kobe, but if we stop the bigs, then Kobe can do what he does, and we’ll have a really good chance to win.”
In the best game of his first career playoff series, McGee threw down a mind-boggling array of dunks and converted alley-oop passes while dominating the Lakers’ superstar duo of 7-footers. McGee dunked on a 60-foot alley-oop pass from Miller early in the fourth quarter, and he stared down the Lakers’ fans after dunking while getting fouled with 6:35 to play, putting the Nuggets ahead by 15.
Bynum had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Lakers, who lost a closeout playoff game at home for the first time since May 4, 2006, against Phoenix.
The Lakers thought they had taken control of the series with a final-minute rally to win a tight Game 4, but the Nuggets have outplayed the third-seeded Lakers for long stretches of the series. Denver was sharper and more determined from the opening tip in Game 5, while the Lakers played a disorganized, disinterested 3 1/2 quarters until the late rally.
The Lakers never trailed in the first two games of the series, but they never led in Game 5 after their very first basket made it 2-0.
”They were daring us to take outside shots,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. ”We were getting shots we couldn’t make. But to me, that’s not the difference in the game. There were so many things we could have done to win this ballgame. … I’m more disappointed in our defense and our lack of protecting the paint.”
Pau Gasol had just nine points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, while Matt Barnes scored 11 points.
The Lakers failed to complete their first playoff series victory under Brown exactly one year after Dallas swept the Lakers in the second round of last year’s postseason, ending 11-time NBA champion coach Jackson’s career – for now, anyway.
Los Angeles’ loss means starting forward Metta World Peace will finish his seven-game suspension during the first round. World Peace was banned for viciously elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden in the Lakers’ penultimate regular-season game.
The Lakers got off to a 3-for-12 start and fell behind after leading the first two home games of the series from start to finish. Neither team was particularly sharp in the first half, with the Lakers trailing 49-43 at the break after making just 15 of 45 shots despite 18 points from Bryant.
Denver enforced its preferred speedy tempo on the walk-it-up Lakers for long stretches, repeatedly beating the Lakers back with fast breaks and sharp passes. Each time the Lakers managed to get close, the Nuggets responded with a rally, including a 10-2 surge to close the third quarter.
Notes: Before the game, Brown chuckled mirthlessly at the conspiracy theory suggesting the Lakers might tank Game 5 to burn off World Peace’s suspension before facing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. … Miller was hit with a technical foul in the second quarter after a hard foul on Bynum, who got a T of his own in the third quarter for shoving Faried after a basket. … Afflalo finally awoke offensively after averaging just 9 points in the first four games of the series. … Fans near courtside included Larry David, British boxer Amir Khan and comedian Harland Williams.