3 votes – The entire Denver Nuggets team. Such a lop-sided contest like this defies conventional anaylsis. The idea that a team can lose in the playoffs by 58 points is completely foreign to me. So I will let Denver coach George Karl explain it: “Every coach talks about playing a playoff game, every possession having value, every possession having intensity to it. I thought my team, probably in my career, I’ve never seen a team probably do that on every possession — do what they were supposed to do and play the game the right way — as much as they did tonight”. That is coming from a guy who has coached over 1500 games over 24 years, including the championship-caliber Sonics back in the 90’s. That’s all you need to know.
The Nuggets completely ripped the heart out of the Hornets, and out of this series, which is amazing because after the Hornet’s Game 3 revival most people thought we were headed to at least 6 games. Now it will be over in 5, and more importantly, now the Denver Nuggets have a very new aura about them: an aura of ruthless defense (parts of last night’s game reminded me of the Oakley/Ewing/Mason Knicks) and unlimited firepower. Denver looks like a scary machine of death. Their average winning margin in this series so far is 34 points. In the playoffs. Against a good team with the best point guard in the league. Scary.
2 votes – Kobe Bryant. Not quite the shooting clinic of Game 4, but a much more rounded, defensive-minded Kobe (4 steals to go with 4 assists and 31 points). He played perfect basketball in a five-minute patch late in the third that blew the game open and gave the Lakers a 22 point lead. Then the Lakers went to sleep. A lot is being made of this, the Lakers inability to close out games after building big leads. It happened in every game this series. I’d like to point out that the Lakers still cleaned up in 5 games and its inevitable in this league that a quality team will always make a run. But I can see where the concern is coming from – haunting memories of last year’s Game 4 Finals collapse. Kobe even admitted after the game that the “blowing of big leads” is probably a weakness for the Lakers team, and while the “W” is all that ultimately matters, you can’t help but feel a championship-calibre team needs to bury a few opponents by 25 points along the path to the title. This Lakers team seems incapable of doing that.
The reason? It goes back to something I said very early on in the season: “Basically I think the Lakers are just too good offensively – they score points so easily and have too much fun doing it – that they won’t and can’t care about defense enough”. Late in the third LA were running circles around the Jazz while trying to crack the SportsCenter Top 10 in every play. It was just too easy for them, and I’m just not sure that a team so accustomed to scoring so effortlessly can be motivated enough to play hard on the other end of the floor. I can’t think of another recent championship team that has had so many scoring options run so deep. The Lakers do play great defense, in stretches, but it’s not sustained. That was supposed to be rectified before they reached the Finals again, and it isn’t.
1 vote – Lamar Odom. I would have liked to award this vote to someone from the Heat-Hawks game, but that was so ugly to watch, and I don’t think Zaza deserves a vote for essentially getting rebounds. Odom has been sensational in this series – the Lakers most consistent performer by far. His numbers: 17.8 points, 11 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 blocks, shooting 63% from the field and 50% from downtown. His aggresion and initiative on the offensive end are a marked improvement over last playoffs and he’s making very few mental errors which hasn’t always been the case. If the Lakers had gone to Odom more late in Game 3 I’m convinved they would have won and this would have been a sweep.