Lakers playing like fresh men
LOS ANGELES – Beforehand, Denver coach George Karl was reflecting on playoff series past, and how they get decided by shoelaces, coin flips, fingernails.
He remembered his 1996 Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics, who beat the Utah Jazz because Shawn Kemp made two foul shots in the final half-minute of Game 7 and Utah's Karl Malone missed one.
He also remembered the Denver-Lakers series of 2009, in which the Nuggets won Game 2 at Staples Center but lost in six — "and maybe if I knew how to draw an in-bounds play," Karl said, recalling the thievery of Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza, "we might have won."
Then Karl's Nuggets came out and made Game 2 closer than it should have been. But not as close as this first-round series.
The Lakers have led it through all 96 minutes, winning Game 2, 104-100, with the power of their 3-pronged outlet.
Andrew Bynum again roamed the earth without much opposition, Pau Gasol was flamboyantly slick with the ball, and Kobe Bryant seems to have found that harmonic converge, that intersection of Brilliant and Prudent.
He poured in 38 points, didn't pick up a foul until early in the fourth quarter, had a huge steal and assist to Bynum when Denver got to within four.
Not that the Lakers were that excited about it. Coach Mike Brown immediately cited poor defensive rebounding and transition defense. Bynum, almost downcast, said he "made too many mistakes" and that "we give up offensive rebounds when we get out of balance."
"We haven't even had a 2-0 lead," Denver's Arron Afflalo said. "We haven't made them catch up to us. It's hard to run like we want to when that happens."
But, no matter who wins these NBA playoffs, Team MRI will be happy to challenge it afterward.
Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Al Horford and Chauncey Billups are among the playoff casualties, and then you have David Lee, Andrew Bogut, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrea Bargnani, Ricky Rubio and Brock Lopez. As soon as Jeremy Lin had finished putting the NBA on the 6 o'clock news, he was gone, too.
Thus, San Antonio and Oklahoma City posted the top two records in the West. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, not the Coach of the Year for nothing, defiantly rested his stars in a rebuke to the 66-game sprint. It worked; the Spurs won 50 games. Oklahoma City's best players aren't old enough to know tired.
And then you see the Paleozoic Lakers, with the third seed.
Trainer Gary Vitti had his doubts in December. There was minimal training camp and there were only 116 days to play.
"This is not scientific, this is clinical, OK?" Vitti said before Game 2. "I mean, this is what I think, from observing. The recovery time was what concerned us, and Mike (coach Brown) has been great with it.
"When you're playing and traveling, you've got the choice of practicing and then flying, or flying and then practicing. And there were a lot of days when, from a basketball standpoint, they would have wanted to practice. But he made sure they got their rest."
When Rose collapsed on Saturday, the whole NBA grieved. Some blamed the torn ACL on the schedule. But knees break, every season.
"The macro-trauma injuries are going to happen," Vitti said. "The micro-trauma injuries were different. Patellar tendinitis, plantar fasciatis, stress fractures, the over-use injuries. We didn't have any more of those than normal."
Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace and Matt Barnes all played at least 63 games.
But Bynum was the most important survivor, playing 60 games.. Seeing him build a rhythm and foundation for a whole season was a fantasy that many Lakers fans had put aside.
"The important thing with him is to keep his core strong, because he has a tendency to do this when he makes a move," said Vitti, bending his knee inward as Bynum does. "There's only so much you can do with him, because of his congenital anomalies, Mike played him as smartly as you can play him. But you gotta give him credit, too. Andrew had stuff he had to play through, and so did Pau."
That, and maybe his agility training with Freddie Roach over the winter, allowed Bynum to play 36 minutes a game — just one fewer than Bryant, per game. Only eight NBA players averaged 37 this season, as opposed to 18 during the full schedule of 2010-11. The Lakers were the only team with two (Bryant and Gasol).
"At the beginning, if you'd asked me how it would go, I would have said, hey, I don't know," Vitti said. "Then at midseason, I'd say, well, it's going pretty good. Now it's still going pretty good. There wasn't anything over the top."
Three Lakers were, on Tuesday.
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