A Daily Babble Production
The Denver Nuggets head back to Los Angeles having evened the Western Conference Finals at two games apiece, and they have their bench to thank for that.
When Denver took over last night's Game 4, Carmelo Anthony had yet to make a field goal. Chauncey Billups spent a five-minute stretch on the bench. But an energetic unit featuring four reserves set the tone for the rest of the game by stretching a three-point first quarter lead as high as 15. Though the Nuggets took a seven-point lead into recess, the Lakers spent the rest of the evening playing catch-up.
It began with J.R. Smith, who is known for his ability to do three things: shoot, shoot and shoot. He got around to doing some of that, but he got himself space on the floor by attacking the rim and demonstrating surprising passing vision early on. Three times in the first six minutes of the second quarter, Smith set up dunks for his teammates. He opened the period by forcing Pau Gasol to help on his drive in the middle of the lane and lofting the ball to a cutting Chris Andersen for an open finish. He followed this four minutes later by penetrating through the middle again and flicking a picture-perfect no-look pass to Nene for a slam. Two possessions after that, Smith drove right, drew more help and dished to Nene for another flush.
After indicating himself a threat to find the open man, Smith had that much easier a time finding space later in the quarter. A ball-fake, one-dribble move at the three-point line freed him to can an open jumper from 20 feet. Another drive to the basket resulted in an acrobatic lay-up in traffic. Smith finished with nine points in the period en route to 24 for the game, but the renowned gunner really made an impression as a distributor on this night.
The recipient of Smith's first lob made his mark at the defensive end as well. Chris Andersen came up with two crowd-pleasing blocks early in the quarter. The Birdman came from well behind Shannon Brown to block the guard's righty lay-up attempt hard off the glass, and he later stifled a baseline drive from Jordan Farmar. Each block resulted in a rebound for the Nuggets, and Denver points followed on the ensuing possession in both instances.
Two less heralded Nuggets reserves made their presences felt as well. Anthony Carter and Linas Kleiza (from the 'Zou!) teamed up twice in 36 seconds to stretch an eight-point margin to 13. Controlling the ball offset left of the top of the circles, Carter recognized that Kobe Bryant had over-committed to doubling him in hopes of forcing a steal. As Bryant turned to recover to his man, Carter snapped a pass on a line to the right side of the rim, where a waiting Kleiza jumped, caught it and laid it in. On the following possession, Carter brought the ball deep in the lane. As the Lakers' defense collapsed inside, Kleiza sprinted from the left wing to the top of the arc to give Carter an easier look to the perimeter. AC got the ball back out to him just as Kobe turned to see the cut and make a belated effort to close out. Count the three for the former Missouri Tiger.
Melo wouldn't make his first field goal until the final minute of the half after missing his first 10 tries from the floor, but it wouldn't matter. During the first 2:43 of the second quarter, with several reserves on the floor, the Nugs rolled off a plus-8 stretch to push the lead to 11. When Chauncey Billups sat for the next 5:04, the bench unit played plus-1 and handed a 12-point lead back to the starters late in the half.
Though the game tightened for brief stretches, the Nuggets never really looked back. Thanks to the momentum Denver's bench grabbed to start the second quarter, the powder blue folks ensured themselves another Pepsi Center home game this season with a 120-101 Game 4 victory.