By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009
LOS ANGELES, May 27 -- The Los Angeles Lakers didn't issue an official search party to find some support for all-stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, but they knew that in order to defeat a deep and talented team like the Denver Nuggets, they were going to need a more balanced effort. Back at home after a blowout loss two nights before, Lamar Odom arrived to play a scene-stealing, supporting role, as the Lakers won Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, 103-94, to take a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series.
It was the Lakers' first victory over Denver this series that did not require a 40-point game from Bryant, who had a team-high 22 points with eight assists. The Lakers are now just one win from becoming the first runner-up to return to the NBA Finals since New Jersey in 2003. Game 6 is Friday in Denver.
Before Wednesday night, Odom's impact on the series had been limited to serving as an obstruction on the Nuggets' two failed inbounds passes in their first two losses. Odom had been laboring since injuring his back on a hard fall in the previous series against Houston, but he was active on both ends of the floor, finishing with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks, giving him his first double-double since the first round against Utah.
"When [Odom] is being aggressive and he's getting after it and he's active, we're a different ball club," Bryant said in a televised interview.
Odom scored eight points during a 21-3 second half run that allowed the Lakers to seize control of the game, and possibly the series. Gasol added 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, while Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher both scored 12 points.
Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 31 points for the Nuggets, who led 73-66 when Dahntay Jones had a rebound tip with 5:12, but they were unable to build on the lead, allowing the Lakers to comeback through their carelessness. Denver had turnovers on four consecutive possessions -- two bad passes by Chauncey Billups, a Carmelo Anthony travel, and a shot clock violation -- and the Lakers tied the game at 73 when Lamar Odom hit a three-pointer. Billups hit a three-pointer to put Denver ahead 76-73 but Bryant answered with a three-pointer of his own to end the period.
The Lakers scored the first 11 points of the fourth quarter, with Odom sending the sellout crowd at Staples Center into a tizzy when he got fouled dunking over Nuggets reserve center Chris Andersen and howled. Reserve guard Shannon Brown put the Lakers ahead 87-76 with a pull-up jumper.
"You know, I won't make no excuse about playing well or not playing well. If my back is hurt or isn't hurt, I'm just going to go out there and give it 100 percent," Odom said. "In that time, in that moment you're caught up in the game. Sometimes aggression just comes out and it came out with a scream after that dunk."
The Lakers held the Nuggets without a field goal for more than seven minutes in the second half until reserve forward Linas Kleiza hit a three-pointer from the left corner to bring Denver within 89-81. Odom answered with a hook in the lane, but the Nuggets scored six consecutive points, closing within four points when Anthony had a fastbreak dunk. Anthony had two free throws to bring the Nuggets within 93-89, but Ariza gave the Lakers some comfort when he converted a three-point play with a reverse layup.
The Nuggets arrived in Los Angeles knowing that they needed to win at least one game here in order to win this series. Before the game, Nuggets Coach George Karl called it a "must-win," given the difficulty for road teams to win Game 7s. Denver was confident after winning Game 2 and possibly coming within a bad inbounds pass of winning the opener. But the Nuggets were also up against history because the Lakers entered the game 19-0 all-time at home in Game 5s when the series is tied at 2.
"I thought they got the benefit of the whistle," Nuggets Coach George Karl said, blaming the officials for his team's struggles late. "The stat sheet says they defended it better. They blocked more shots. We didn't get as many paint points. But I'm not sure that's the case. I think it will be very easy to get my team ready to play for Game 6."
Gasol complained of not getting enough touches after scoring 21 points on just 11 shots in the loss on Monday. His request was not met in the first half, as he and Bryant combined to take just four shots through the first 19 minutes.
Less Bryant and Gasol actually allowed the other Lakers to get involved, as they were tied with Denver at 38 before either Bryant or Gasol had taken their third shot.
"I just stretched the floor out," Bryant said. "Pau, they double teamed him on the post, too. So all we did was just put the ball in my hands, put the ball in his hands, make the defense commit and then we made plays from there."
Center Andrew Bynum was effective early, scoring nine points in the first half, and establishing himself with the force the Lakers had hoped he would've brought most of the postseason. He backed down defenders and dunked, caught an alley-oop pass from Bryant for another dunk. Bynum gave the Lakers a 40-38 lead when Gasol flipped a pass over his shoulder to him for a dunk.
But when Kenyon Martin dunked to give the Nuggets a 44-42 lead, Bryant became more assertive. He drove to the basket and got fouled, making two free throws. He made another strong drive to the basket, lost the ball in the air, recovered it and made a layup while getting fouled. He then caught a lob pass from Odom and laid the ball in, scoring seven points in little more than a minute.
Carmelo Anthony was limited to just 15 points in Game 4, battling through a bout of the stomach flu and a sore right ankle. He nearly matched that total in the first half, with 14 points. Anthony gave the Nuggets a three-point lead with 37 seconds left in the second period, but the Nuggets were unable to build on it after yet another poor inbounds pass in the closing seconds.
J.R. Smith threw a softball pass to Kleiza that rolled out of bounds, allowing the Lakers to enter the locker room tied at 56 when Bryant sucked in the defense and kicked the ball out to Sasha Vujacic for a three-pointer.