Nuggets 115, Lakers 111

Before the game, Lakers coach Phil Jackson gave us a little history lesson in response to a question about orchestrating a playoff matchup. This was not the first time the subject came up this season; Jackson has needled the Clippers for how they played(?) their way into a first-round series with Denver last season.

Jackson said he never had considered doing such a thing and didn’t believe in it. Of course, the Lakers obviously are orchestrating their way into the playoffs right now by losing six of their last eight games. The way things are going, they’ll orchestrate their way out in five games. So it’s a largely a moot point, though an interesting one.

His belief on the subject seemed to have been shaped by an event that happened when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls. Jackson said he believed that Stan Albeck, who coached the team before Doug Collins, was fired because he tried to do such a thing in the 1985-86 season. Turns out, Jackson had his facts a little wrong.

What happened was the Bulls faced a decision about bringing Michael Jordan back from a broken foot in mid-March of what was shaping up to be a lost season. They reluctantly did so, with Jordan’s minutes being so strictly limited that Albeck actually sat him in a game his team was leading by a point with 31 seconds left.

But the Bulls still won six of their last 10 games to make the playoffs. They didn’t qualify for the draft lottery and Albeck was fired after the season. Jackson’s take was backward, that Krause and Co. were playing to win when they weren’t. He said: “They thought you win games you should win and thats the way you should do this game.”

Jackson went on to say that you can’t cheat the fans who buy tickets hoping to see a competitive game. At the same time, he all but promised to rest his starters in next week’s regular season finale against Sacramento if the Lakers are locked into their playoff position.

“I want this team to win games and to do that you have to play at a certain level,” Jackson said.

(It’s also worth noting that the Clippers generated a tremendous degree of positive momentum by beating the Nuggets and advancing out of the first round while the Memphis Grizzlies, who finished fifth, were swept by Dallas and have fallen all the way to being the NBA’s worst team.)

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Smush Parker found himself benched in the fourth quarter for the third time in four games. At least there was a positive to be found in the play of Sasha Vujacic. After not playing in the Lakers’ two previous games, Vujacic finished with six points and three steals in 22 minutes while making a number of big plays.

The Lakers were looking at heading into halftime down by 10 when Vujacic stripped Allen Iverson and fed ahead to Maurice Evans for a 3-pointer at the buzzer. That left them trailing by a more-manageable 65-58. Vujacic also turned another steal into an Evans’ 3-pointer in the fourth quarter as the Lakers’ staged their comeback.

But Vujacic couldn’t catch a break in the end. The Lakers were looking for a stop in the closing seconds with the shot and game clock both in their favor. Vujacic went to trap Carmelo Anthony only to wind up called for a kicking violation, resetting the shot clock (turning it off, more accurately) and forcing the Lakers to foul.

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What a strange, strange game out of Andrew Bynum. He got pulled two minutes into the game after a couple of blown coverages on defenses. Then he gets shuttled back into the game after Ronny Turiaf was twice blocked by Marcus Camby. Then Bynum headed to the bench again after picking up his second foul. All in the first 3:54.

Bynum had a underwhelming first half and the Nuggets took advantage of his mistakes to build a 15-point lead. He threw away a pass, leading to a fast break basket, and then committed a violation on the subsequent inbounds pass. Kobe Bryant fumed a little bit later at Bynum when he didn’t cut to receive a pass.

The second half was a different story, though, for the 19-year-old. With Bryant setting him up, Bynum punched in four baskets in the third quarter. But he also picked up three fouls in six minutes and had to sit midway through the quarter. The Nuggets scored 10 unanswered points in 65 seconds right about then.

Jackson opted to play Ronny Turiaf until he fouled out in the fourth quarter. Bynum came in for rebounding purposes at the very end but checked back out without officially playing a second. His final line? Sixteen points on 7-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds and two turnovers in 19 minutes.

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Lamar Odom thought he had drawn an offensive foul on Nene when the Lakers needed one with 7.1 seconds left. Odom said he tried to “antagonize” Nene by crowding him and was on the receiving end of a quick head-butt in retaliation. Referee Leroy Richardson, though, called both players for a double technical foul.

Luke Walton also was called for a technical late in the third quarter. I’m not sure if I’ve seen Walton pick up a technical in all my seasons on the beat. Walton was furious that he got hit in the face fighting for a rebound only to hear a whistle blow and learn that a loose-ball foul was called on Turiaf.

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The Nuggets could not have played a worse second half against the Lakers’ zone defense. They shot 11 of 39 (28.2 percent) overall and 3 of 15 from 3-point range. So roughly 40 percent of their shots were from long range as they tried to close out a game they led much of the way by double digits.

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My question tonight is which team you as a Lakers fan would rather see in the playoffs. Jackson said he had a preference but wasn’t going to share it.

The Lakers nearly swept San Antonio in the regular season but I think they know how difficult a matchup that would be given the Spurs defense, their championship pedigree and a very limited Kwame Brown to hold down Tim Duncan.

The Lakers are more than familiar with the Suns after last season’s playoffs. Of course, Phoenix is a much different team with Amare Stoudemire back. You had to think after hearing Bryant praise Raja Bell for being one of the few players committed to playing defense that he was just setting Bell up to take him down.

Maybe I’m the only one, but I’ve thought the Lakers would really push the Mavericks. Dallas never plays well at Staples Center (except for that record 36-point victory) and is just a year removed from having Bryant drop 62 in three quarters on them. Plus Odom gives Dirk Nowitzki as much trouble as anyone in the league.

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By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

DENVER–They all but said goodbye to their chances of finishing sixth in the Western Conference standings and said hello their place in history as the team with the worst record in Phil Jacksons Hall of Fame career as a head coach.

But the Lakers did not go down without a fight Monday night, rallying from 13 points down in the fourth quarter, even as their slide toward the playoffs continued with a 115-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center.

The Lakers buried themselves by giving up 65 points in the first half, then staged an improbable fourth quarter comeback. The end result was all too familiar, though, as the Lakers lost for the sixth time in eight games.

They fell 1 1-2 games behind Denver for sixth but the Nuggets clinched the season series tiebreaker by beating the Lakers for the third time since March 15. The Lakers (40-38) still lead eighth-place Golden State and the Clippers by two games.

Even if the difference is negligible between playing Dallas, Phoenix or San Antonio in the first round, the Lakers have been unable to find any momentum as the playoffs draw closer. They will try again with Thursdays home game against the Clippers.

“We can get a hot streak, Kobe Bryant said. “We just want to get to a place where weve got some type of rhythm, weve got some type of accountability. Weve got (four) games here to kind of right that ship. Im confident. Im optimistic that well play much better.

Even if the Lakers win out, they wont match last seasons 45-37 record, which once seemed a foregone conclusion. That was the worst mark of Jacksons career before these Lakers experienced an unprecedented run of injuries and losing streaks.

The Lakers still can clinch a playoff berth with one more victory and one more loss by the Warriors. Whether they will follow last seasons team, which was Jacksons first ever to fail to advance past the first round of the playoffs, remains to be seen.

Jackson has managed expectations since his return last season but didnt sound encouraged when asked before the game if he saw any upsets coming out of the West in the first round.

“Thats a real long shot for us to be able to get something done, Jackson said, “especially with a seven-game series now. It really does make a difference when its a seven-game series. An upstart teams not going to pull off a swift kick.

Bryant finished with 23 points and 10 assists but made just 9 of 30 shots, including a wrong-foot 3-pointer that could have tied the game with 2.9 seconds left. Luke Walton added 19 points, Lamar Odom contributed 18 and Andrew Bynum had 16.

Jackson described the Lakers as being a “fourth-quarter enigma before the game and Monday was yet another example. They got back in the game by turning to a zone defense, then surged in front by scoring 10 unanswered points.

They took their first lead (105-104) since the middle of the first quarter on Brian Cooks 3-pointer with 4:20 left. But they could hold their ground as Ronny Turiaf was stripped on a key possession and Odom and Bryant both missed late free throws.

“That seems to be our problem right now, Jackson said, “is just finishing the game, making `the play or making a play thats a critical play in the game to bring us to that point.

The Lakers had a chance to tie in the final minute but the Nuggets forced the ball out of Bryants hands. He moved it to Cook beyond the 3-point arc only to watch as Cook passed on his shot, then fired the ball to Walton and cut to the basket.

Cook got the ball back but missed his layup with 30.9 seconds to play, saying afterward, “I kind of got shoved on the catch and I tried to kind of half-hook it, half-lay it up. It fell short. I wish I had it over again.

Carmelo Anthony made the second of two free throws with 9.2 seconds left, then fouled Bryant immediately after the Lakers inbounded the ball. Bryants two free throws made it 112-111 but the Lakers couldnt come up with a steal and had to foul Anthony.

The Nuggets star might lose the scoring title to Bryant but he won the battle Monday. Anthony, who finished with 33 points, five rebounds and five assists, made two free throws with 7.1 seconds left to put the Nuggets ahead 114-111.

The Lakers last gasp ended with Bryant launching and missing an awkward 28-foot 3-pointer off his left foot with 2.9 seconds left. Denver won its sixth consecutive game, behind Allen Iversons 24 points and Marcus Cambys 22 rebounds and seven blocks.

Somewhere along the line, the Lakers are going to have to play defense to win in the playoffs. They showed how much they missed injured center Kwame Brown in allowing a season-high-tying 65 points on 61.5 percent shooting to the Nuggets.

While Camby blocked four shots in the first quarter, the Lakers had no defensive anchor. They gave up all manner of layups and fast break baskets and left Jackson no option but to employ a zone defense to stop penetration in the second half.

The Lakers gave up 32 points in the first quarter, 65 in the first half and 92 by the end of three quarters. It did little to improve the Lakers chances of not finishing the season ranked among the NBAs worst defensive teams, giving up 103.4 points per game.

“We just want to start winning games because winnings contagious, Walton said. “If you go into the playoffs losing, then you dont really have anything youre building on.

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By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

DENVER–No matter what team the Lakers wind up facing in the playoffs, the scouting report in regard to Lamar Odom likely will read the same: Play him to shoot.

As he plays through a torn labrum in his left shoulder, Odoms shooting has unquestionably suffered. After Mondays game against Denver, Odom has made 4 of 28 3-pointers and 49 of 80 free throws since returning from the injury.

Thats 14.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 61.3 percent from the foul line, when the game stops and Odoms shoulder begins to tighten. Odom missed a key free throw Monday with 1:59 left and a chance to put the Lakers ahead by two.

“Ive really been trying to focus on getting my shot off the dribble because my arm lacks a lot of strength, that I really need rhythm, Odom said. “Im really trying to put the ball on the floor, use my ability to handle the ball to get my jump shot off.

Odom added: “The strength is just not the same. The more I stand still, the weaker it feels. So I figure if I can dribble into a nice little rhythm, itll kind of help it a little bit.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he been vocal with Odom in recent games, yelling “Why? when his forward launched an ill-considered 3-pointer. Playing with the injury, Jackson said Odom has a “responsibility to take good shots.

“He knows that the rest of his game is very, very good right now, Jackson said. “That part of his game, well see where it takes him as he goes through the playoffs. Hes still working on his therapy, getting his shoulder loose and able to shoot.

“Hes been working on his shooting a lot actually. So were hoping it improves. He still has to try it out. He still has to make a threat out of it.

Brown update: Kwame Brown did not make the trip to Denver and underwent an MRI exam Monday on his injured left ankle. Brown reported a different pain in the ankle – - the exam revealed no additional damage – - and might not return until the playoffs.

“We may just have to sit him out, Jackson said. “That may be the recommendation that we get. A lot of it will be up to him. Im not going to encourage him unless we say like, `Hey, come out in Wednesdays game if were playoff bound and play a half so you get in a game rhythm so you feel like youre ready to go in the playoffs at full strength.

Jackson said he considered “just for a second starting Ronny Turiaf with Brown out and Andrew Bynum struggling before deciding against the move.

He conceded that it would give the Lakers “obviously our best, most active team but its not whats going to win the game for us in the fourth quarter. Jackson said that Turiaf, because of his nagging hip soreness, “doesnt have a 40-minute game in him.

Also: The Lakers plan on having Jordan Farmar play a third and final game with the development league D-Fenders on Thursday but will limit his minutes. . . .Jackson expects Vladimir Radmanovic to return from his separated shoulder Sunday against Seattle.

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