The Nuggets were facing elimination heading into Tuesday’s Game 5 at Staples Center, and as if seeing their season come to an end wasn’t motivation enough, Lakers center Andrew Bynum provided them with a little something extra, courtesy of comments he made at one of the team’s practice sessions before this one.
“Closeout games are actually kind of easy,” Bynum said. “Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning.”
Nothing was easy for the Lakers, and we’ll never know what might have been had L.A. actually played hard from the start. They did not, and now the series will head back to Denver for a Game 6 after the Nuggets played with a sustained fire and energy for 48 minutes that earned them a 102-99 victory.
Andre Miller was masterful with the way he ran Denver’s offense, finishing with 24 points and eight assists in 28 minutes off the bench. JaVale McGee was an absolute monster, getting loose around the rim seemingly at will while finishing with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, to go along with 14 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots.
Denver held the lead for most of the night, and ran it up to 15 points — its largest of the game — with six-and-a-half minutes left. L.A. made a furious rally at that point behind four largely ridiculous three-pointers from Kobe Bryant, but ultimately couldn’t make it all the way back.
Bryant finished with 43 points, Bynum had a quiet 16 points and 11 rebounds, and no other Laker was able to impact this game on either end of the floor.
The Lakers, to a man, didn’t have an explanation for not coming out with enough energy and focus to match that of their opponent and close this series out. The Nuggets, however, were unified in detailing their motivation. And they agreed that Bynum’s comments provided just that.
“His feeling on closeouts is a little different than my history of being in them,” George Karl said afterward. “So I told my players that. ”
Mike Brown admitted what his All-Star center said could be construed as “bulletin-board material,” but didn’t necessarily have a problem with Bynum’s comments.
“It is bulletin board material,” he said. “If a guy wants to say that, in my opinion, he’s got to back it up. But we all have to get his back and try to help him back it up. We did not as a team.”
McGee admitted Bynum’s comments were motivational, but being in the playoffs for the first time in his career was likely a bigger reason for the way he came out and dominated in a potential elimination game.
“Usually I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” he said, referencing the fact that he played the past three and a half seasons for the dismal Washington Wizards, before the mid-season trade that brought him to Denver in March.
“My last game is usually, if it’s a regular season, in April,” he added. “I definitely didn’t want tonight to be my last game.”
He played like it. And so did his teammates, especially defensively. Denver stuck to its principles, sending hard double teams at Bynum all night long, doing the same against Pau Gasol, and daring the Lakers to be efficient with their ball movement before knocking down mid-range or three-point shots.
Until Bryant’s barrage late in the fourth, L.A. couldn’t hit anything from outside, so Denver was able to continue to pack the paint, making life miserable offensively for the Lakers’ bigs.
Kobe, as you might imagine, didn’t have a problem with Bynum’s comments that wound up being that last thing the Nuggets saw in their pregame film session. But ultimately, he knows that his team can’t pull a no-show in the playoffs, no matter where the other team’s motivation is coming from.
“That’s true, closeout games can be easy sometimes,” Bryant said, in temporary defense of his teammate. “But tonight wasn’t one of those nights.”
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Bryant said. “Did it pump them up? Probably. Were they going to come out and play with that kind of energy anyway? Probably. We didn’t execute and they obviously played harder than we did, so it’s a lesson to learn. You never want to give anybody bulletin material to begin with, but if you’re going to be a champion, you’ve got to play through that type of stuff.”
Bryant also didn’t believe that as a team, their energy magically appeared at some point late in the fourth quarter. He’s had performances like that too many times, and he’s been the one who’s had to personally drag his team back from the dead many more times than that.
“I wouldn’t say our energy kicked in in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I almost bailed us out. That’s what happened. It wasn’t an energy switch, I started making shots left and right and got us back in the ballgame. That’s not something that we can use to rely on to get us to a championship. It can’t be that. We all have to step up and we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that kind of energy and a sense of urgency.”
It’s better for the Lakers to get a grip on this now, in the first round, while they still hold a 3-2 lead in the series with two more chances to close out the Nuggets if absolutely necessary. Bryant pointed to the inexperience on his team as a possible reason for Tuesday’s poor showing, while mentioning the opportunity to gain that experience on the road in Game 6 in the very next breath.
“I’ve been in this position before, but a lot of guys on the team haven’t been in that position before,” he said. “It’s important to remind them that yeah, this sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. You’ve got to go up there in a tough environment, gain some experience, and earn your stripes.”
The Nuggets know they’ve competed in all but one of the first five games of this series, and coming off a huge road win to save themselves from elimination — while having the opportunity in front of them to force a Game 7, where anything can happen — will likely be more than enough to get them going for Thursday’s Game 6 back in Denver.
Andrew Bynum and the rest of the Lakers would be wise not to give the Nuggets any additional motivation.