Numb legs. Heavy legs. A sore hip and groin.
Despite an arduous battle that all but depleted Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza—who combined to score 29 of Los Angeles’ 32 fourth-quarter points—the Lakers escaped Game 3 with a 103-97 road victory to take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals.
“I couldn’t feel my legs one bit,” Bryant admitted after ending the Nuggets’ 16-game winning streak at home. “Not at all.”
Said Ariza of his awkward landing that simultaneously re-aggravated his hip and groin problems, prompting the former UCLA Bruin to return to the locker room in the third quarter for a short time: “It hurt. I can't even lie.”
As if exhaustion and injuries weren't enough, add the elevated altitude—as well as a raucous Pepsi Center crowd that at times chanted “Kobe Sucks” as if it actually believed so—to the equation and you have a solution that is code for impossible.
But champions don’t understand what impossible means. Champions don’t allow their team to succumb to an eight-point deficit heading into the final quarter with the opposing team carrying Mr. Momentum on its back. Instead, they transform their troubles into triumphs. They welcome pressure. Heck, they thrive on the very thought of it.
“When they started chanting that, it just reminded me what we were playing for and where we were playing,” Bryant said following his 41-point effort, the ninth time he has scored at least 40 points in his playoff career.
The Black Mamba attacked in the fourth quarter: 13 points, defense that limited Chauncey Billups to just one field goal make in five attempts and an arsenal of clutch plays that included penetrating the lane for an and-1 opportunity, knocking down a baseline fade-away that defied the odds of everything-basketball and downing a three-point facial that gave the Lakers the lead for good.
Nonetheless, Game 3 was just as close as the first two rumbles. Each team finished with the same number of field goal makes (33) and rebounds (43), and only one off each other in three-point makes (Los Angeles 6, Denver 5) and turnovers (Los Angeles 12, Denver 11). If the series continues in this fashion, it will come down to the things that cannot be measured by a box score.
Like intensity and focus and will.
Through three games, we have seen those intangibles from both teams in seemingly equal doses. Through the next four, they will be the ingredients that will likely decide who goes on and who goes home.
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Written by Josh Hoffman