Danilo Gallinari was lying on the floor when the Lakers took the lead for good in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the Nuggets.
Depending on whom you believe, he had either just been stunned by a blow to his throat delivered by Pau Gasol’s shoulder — “I felt, like, a click, and, I don’t know, I just touched it a little bit and I felt it click back,” Gallo said afterward, waving two fingers over his Adam’s apple — or he was trying to buy a foul call by overreacting to a hard but legal screen.
The referees apparently thought it was the latter because no foul was called, which left the Nuggets in a tough spot — four players defending five in the final minute of a tie game. Normally, when one of your own goes down on a basketball court and there’s no call, you’re supposed to foul to stop the action. The Nuggets didn’t. Moments later, Lakers guard Ramon Sessions hit an open three-pointer to give them an 89-86 lead with forty-eight seconds remaining.
The Nuggets never got closer. The play may end up the turning point in the series. With the game tied at 86, the Nuggets had a chance to even the series at two games apiece. When they lost, it gave the Lakers a prohibitive lead of three games to one. The Nuggets have trailed a playoff series by that margin ten previous times and never come back to win it.
“He’s a big guy, man,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said of the six foot, ten-inch Gallinari. “He can’t flop like that on the screen-and-roll. Pau is not necessarily the strongest guy in the world.”
On the game telecast, analyst Steve Kerr suggested Gallinari did not get the benefit of the call from the referees because European players have a reputation for acting.
“It was just a tough pick,” Gallinari said. “You’ve got to expect that in the playoffs. So myself, I’ve got to be more ready in those situations to get those hits and still be able to play defense. Unfortunately, they had a big shot out of that play. So it was a tough one. We’ve got to rest now and think about Game 5.”
The temptation to blame Gallinari for the outcome should be resisted, however, for two reasons.
First, without him the Nuggets wouldn’t even have been in the game. He was Denver’s best player in Game 4, leading them with twenty points despite being the only player on either side to get into foul trouble.
Second, in the last sixteen playoff games in which they’ve scored fewer than ninety-nine points, the Nuggets’ record is 0-16. Sunday night they finished with eighty-eight, sixteen below their league-leading season average.
This is the Nuggets’ postseason paradox. The team that led the NBA in scoring doesn’t have enough offensive weapons.
For much of the regular season, their speed and athleticism were enough. When you’re outrunning your opponents, anybody who can dunk or make a layup is an offensive weapon, and that’s the whole roster. The Nuggets led the NBA in fast break points, assists and points in the paint.
But in the postseason, when the games slow down and transition buckets are hard to come by, you need players with the offensive skills to score into the teeth of a half-court defensive set with intimidating big men guarding the basket. This is where the Nuggets struggle.
The Lakers have three players — Bryant, Gasol and Andrew Bynum — the Nuggets must assign two defenders, at least some of the time. This creates open shots for role players like the daggers from Sessions and Steve Blake on Sunday night.
Post-Carmelo, the Nuggets have no one like that. The Lakers switch defensive assignments on the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll to try to contain guard Ty Lawson’s quickness, but there’s no one player they feel they have to double-team.
That’s why the Nuggets finished with only eighty-eight points. They got some open looks down the stretch. They just couldn’t knock them down. They don’t have great shooters. And they couldn’t get out and run often enough to get the easy baskets to which they grew accustomed during the regular season.
“Probably there were a couple of stretches during the game where we didn’t run as much as we did in Game 3, and our intensity went down for a couple of stretches,” Gallinari said. “We know that against them we cannot allow ourselves to do that.”
Following their Game 3 victory, coach George Karl said energy, which is reflected in pace and aggressiveness, is the key to the Nuggets’ success. Lawson had twenty-five points and seven assists in Game 3. He had eleven and six in Game 4. I asked Karl if Lawson was as aggressive Sunday as he’d been two nights before.
“I probably never feel Ty is aggressive enough,” Karl said. “I think he should be more aggressive almost every night. I don’t know how crowded it was in there on his decisions on not attacking a little bit more to the rim. The film will show that. My thing is I like to see Ty drive the ball in the paint thirty to forty times a game. I think he’s that good and I think he’s that important to us.”
The Lakers made more of an effort to get back on defense and foil Lawson’s penetration in Game 4. They also made more of an effort to rebound the ball. After losing the battle of the glass by ten Friday night, they won it by ten Sunday. Nuggets center JaVale McGee went from sixteen points and fifteen rebounds to eight and four. Power forward Kenneth Faried went from twelve and fifteen to six and seven.
“Us guards had to get in there and rebound,” said the Lakers’ Bryant, who had more boards (eight) than any Nuggets player. “A lot of times our bigs are out of position because of the rotations in the pick-and-roll coverages. McGee and Faried have been doing a great job coming in on top of them and crashing the glass. So we had to get in there with the big guys and mix it up, put some bodies on them and try to control the glass ourselves.”
“Basically, JaVale and Kenneth outworked their big guys in Game 3 and they outworked us in Game 4,” Karl said. “Sometimes the luck of the flow of the game comes your way and I think it came their way in Game 3. (Sunday) we didn’t have the extra effort, energy, luck that sometimes comes by playing hard. I think we gave some things back a little bit and I think we were maybe surprised by their pushing and shoving and powering the game.”
Karl was clearly frustrated by the referees, who called nineteen fouls on the Nuggets and thirteen on the Lakers, even though the Nuggets had more points in the paint and more fast break points, generally the measuring sticks of aggressiveness. Still, both teams struggled to make free throws, so the scoring difference at the line ended up being just two points.
“We shoot twelve free throws, six of them by McGee and none by our guards,” Karl said. Actually, he meant starting guards. Reserve guard Andre Miller shot two. Bryant was not called for a single personal foul all night while Gallinari was called for five, forcing him to the bench for a time in the fourth quarter.
“There were some tough calls, but the referees are there to do their best job and I’m on the court doing the best job I can, so I’m not thinking about the calls,” said Gallo. He did kick a door on his way to the locker room after the game, but that might have been general frustration. “We have to think as a team about the mistakes and the things that we didn’t do as well as we did in Game 3 and try to do those things even better in Game 5 because I think especially in L.A. it’s going to be even more intense.”
Bryant, who reacted sarcastically to my question about Gallo’s defense on him following the Lakers’ Game 3 loss, was more gracious in victory.
“Gallo plays hard, man,” he said. “I gave him some (grief) the other night, but he plays really hard, man. He competes and he steps up to the plate and doesn’t back down, so I appreciate that.”
With one day to travel and prepare for Game 5 on Tuesday, the Nuggets have two choices: They can rediscover their energy and extend the series or they can end their season in L.A.
“Losing’s no fun,” Karl said. “I’m not unhappy with my team. I’m not unhappy with where we’re at. I wish it was 2-2, but I still think we’ve got a series to play and it’s going to be fun on Tuesday night. I think it’s a powerful challenge to us. And I don’t think it’s an impossible challenge. I think it’s a great challenge for this young team.”