North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

It’s a Wild West Kind Of Duel Between Kobe and Carmelo

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Now this is playoff basketball.

The Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers are tangled up in a tightly-matched Western Conference finals, tied with one win apiece.

Game one, a 103-105 win for the Lakers, was a skirmish. Game two, a 106-103 win for the Nuggets, was a duel. Just two games in, this series feels like a battle.

I know sportswriters – especially lazy or untalented ones – always like to fall back on war metaphors, but that’s how I honestly viewed game one and two of this series.

It’s been back and fourth, back and fourth. Los Angeles, basically the twin peaks of Kobe and Gasol, has run head-on into Denver, a hard-nosed, scrappy team that contests every shot and has no problem, none whatsoever, about getting their clothes dirty.

Look at how they handled Trevor Arerza. He drives to the basket, he’s knocked on his ass by Kenyon Martin. They put the pressure on him and he cracked, turning the ball over late and took the air out of the Lakers sails.

Look at Carmelo Anthony. He’s burst out his shell – I already look at him differently. He’s not the guy who won a NCAA title and underperformed; he’s the first player to really take Kobe to task in a while. He had 39 in game one, 34 in game two.

Look at Derek Fisher. Game one, he hits some huge shots. Game two, his game-tying shot sails wide. No way we’ve heard the last of him yet.

Look at a graph of the score. Neither side has managed to take much of a lead. Both games have been close for basically 48 minutes. This is no cakewalk for the Lakers. They haven’t been tested like this, not by Houston and not by Utah.

I think both games have been great and maybe the best games in these 2009 playoffs. Not finishes, whole games. These are ones that’ll air on ESPN Classic or Hardcourt Classics. They were hard fought, close and really could have gone either way. It’s like an old Celtics/Pistons game.

Those games were classic too, but not for their beauty. Those were tough, closely fought matches. Quite like what’s happened at the Staples Centre.

Granted, it’s been trainwreck ugly at times. Bad possessions and missed calls have showed up in both games. Both games kind of came down to missed chances at the foul line. The Nuggets could have, should have won game one. They hit a few more from the charity strips, they successfully run that inbounds pass at the end… well, maybe they’re up in this series two-nothing heading back to Denver. It’s been that close.

But it’s been great at times too. Kobe and Carmelo are dueling each other on the court. Both are lighting it up, pushing each other to new heights. It almost feels like a wild-west showdown between two gunslingers.

I don’t know if I’ve seen Carmelo play this possessed. His play – both times nearly matching Kobe’s stat line – has been nothing short of stellar.

On the other side of the ball, I’ve seen Kobe play this possessed, but only rarely. He is not doin’ work, he is worked up. When ESPN’s cameras caught him grimacing late in game two, you could almost feel his frustration as the game slipped beyond his grasp.

He is doing all he can – see his late game heroics in this series – but one man cannot carry a team, despite his best efforts. He’s hitting late shots, he’s having great nights… but that’s not enough. He needs the rest of the Lakers – Gasol, Fisher, Odom, et al – to get over this hump.

But one player can lift his team and make them play better then they ever have before. Before these playoffs began, I was firmly convinced in two things. One, the Nuggets series against the Hornets would be great (it wasn’t) and that the Nuggets were going to explode and fall apart.

They haven’t, even with these two pressure-cooker games in Los Angeles. Billups has been great at the point, Nene’s defence has been top-notch and Kenyon Martin has been good on both sides of the court; in game two he both set a tone on defence and hit a clutch shot to put the Nuggets in front. Is Carmelo the catalyst of this change? Is it Billups? I can’t say I know.

But the seeds of their destruction are already sown. They’re shooting horribly from the foul line and they’re picking up ugly fouls. You can only bang around bodies for so long in this stage of the NBA before the refs put a stop to it. Before one of your players gets hurt. Before they start treating you in kind.

Still, playing on a foreign court, they’ve kept the Lakers in check two times. Like I said, this series could very easily have been two-love for the Nuggets as they moved to Denver.

You know what? If they keep this level of play up, it could very easily be a 3-1 lead by Tuesday morning.

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Written by M.

May 22, 2009 at 5:08 am

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