Lakers host Nuggets in Game 7

Time to eat a little crow here. I thought the L.A. Lakers would put forth a huge effort in Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night in the Mile High City. I believed Kobe Bryant would will his team to a victory, much like Michael Jordan used to do, and that Andrew Bynum would bounce back big from a mediocre Game 5.

Oops.

Instead, the Nuggets forced the first Game 7 of these NBA Playoffs with a dominating 113- 96 victory that really wasn’t that close. I’d like to use in my defense that Bryant had a major stomach bug and was vomiting all day, but he still managed to score a team-high 31 points and shoot 57 percent from the field. The problem was that his teammates managed to hit only 37 percent of their shots.

Saturday is the first winner-take-all game for the Nuggets since losing to Utah in Game 7 of the 1994 Western Conference semifinals. Denver can become just the ninth team in NBA playoff history to rally from a 3-1 series deficit. The last was the 2006 Phoenix Suns, who just so happened to do so against the Lakers.

Story lines

Ty Lawson was the story for Denver on Thursday with a career playoff high 32 points on 13- of-18 shooting. Lawson connected on all four of his three-pointers in the first quarter – Lawson had made just two three-pointers in the first five games but was 5-for-6 from long distance on Thursday — as the Nuggets jumped to a 23-8 lead and never trailed. Lawson said that he flew out his personal shooting coach from Las Vegas to Denver on Wednesday night and whatever they did obviously worked.

I did think the Nuggets had a good chance in Game 6 if JaVale McGee had another big game – both of Denver’s previous two wins came when he exploded – but he had just two points to go with five fouls in 20 minutes.

The real story was the disappearance of Lakers big men Andrew Bynum, who hasn’t been the same since saying close out games were “easy”, and Pau Gasol. It almost looked like neither guy cared Thursday as Bynum was 4-for-11 for 11 points and Gasol was ridiculously bad, going 1-for-10 from the field for three points and just three rebounds, his lowest total of the season. (Kobe had more IV bags before the game and at halftime, four, than Gasol had boards). Both Bynum and Gasol were called out by Coach Mike Brown and Kobe, and deservedly so. Reporters asked Kobe if his teammates matched his heart, and he said: “No. Of course they didn’t.”

I can’t believe I am writing this, but it could be that Metta World Peace saves the Lakers’ season. Peace was suspended seven games by the NBA for elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden in the penultimate game of the regular season, meaning he can now return for Game 7. You can’t count on much from Peace, but you can count on his intensity and that’s something the Lakers badly need right now.

The former Ron Artest is still a very good defender as well and L.A. also needs that as Denver is looking like the top-scoring team in the league again by totaling 215 points in the past two games. Peace should be able to shut down the likes of Danilo Gallinari and Corey Brewer, as they combined for 30 points from the small forward position on Thursday.

It’s going to be a quick turnaround for whoever wins this game as Game 1 of the Western semifinals begins Monday night at Oklahoma City.

Key trends

Los Angeles opened as a six-point favorite with the total at 196.5 on NBA odds. Denver was 22- 11 ATS on the road this season – 2-1 this series – and 19-13-1 on the ‘over/under’ away from home (2-1 this series). L.A. was 16-17 ATS at home this season and 18-15 O/U.

Denver is 5-1 ATS in its past six games when scoring at least 100 points in their previous game. The Nuggets have covered just six times in their past 20 games after a win. The Lakers are 4-0 ATS in their past four games after a double-digit loss. L.A. is just 3-12 ATS in its past 15 games

as a home favorite. The under is 8-3 in the past 11 meetings at Staples Center. Denver has covered in five of the past eight games in L.A.

Predictions

I have no idea how Bynum will react to being publicly called out – he’s still very immature. But I do expect Gasol to respond. The last time he was in this type of situation he bounced back with 19 points and 18 rebounds as the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.

Whichever team is ahead after the first quarter is in good shape. In five of six games, the winner of the first quarter has won the game, and the initial period has often been a rout as it was Thursday. I don’t see Denver shooting 50 percent from long range again (10-for-20 in Game 6) as the Nugs were just 20-for-87 (22.9 percent) on three-pointers in the first five games. I also don’t expect Denver to be so turnover-free again. It didn’t commit a turnover in either the first or third quarters of Game 6 and thus was plus-23 in those two periods.

Add all that up, plus Peace’s return and the likely home-court calls from the referees and this is a Laker victory. But six points is too many. So take the Nuggets and the under.

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