Scott Howard-Cooper
Friday May 15th, 2009

Five observations on a great night for the Denver Nuggets:

1. If the Lakers don't win Sunday, they will be a historic disappointment.

Dreadful intensity, dreadful intensity against a team without its best player for three games, dreadful intensity against a shorthanded team and staring at the possibility of three losses in four games. There's so much more on the line Sunday at Staples Center than a trip to the Western Conference finals.

This is about how the 2008-09 Lakers will forever be remembered as one of the great underachievers if they lose Game 7, and it will be regarded as a narrow escape if they win then. The Finals last June was a major blow beyond the defeat itself because the Celtics played with more toughness, more teamwork and more heart. But Boston was very good on defense and had the weaponry of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen along with Rajon Rondo on the come. If the loss was bad because of the meek behavior, at least the opponent had future Hall of Famers and experience.

The Rockets of Thursday had zero All-Stars, started four forwards and a guard in a patchwork lineup, were without their biggest scoring threat (Yao Ming), and still rolled the Lakers in the first quarter. The good vibes from L.A.'s very impressive showing in Game 5 lasted all of a couple of minutes, leading to a 95-80 (BOX | RECAP) Houston victory at the Toyota Center and a 3-3 series tie.

To not win a championship would be the Lakers falling short of their expectations and the expectations of many. To not so much as reach the conference finals when they had home-court advantage and a wounded team on the line would be a monumental setback. Sunday is for their legacy, not just for their playoff lives.

2. Another win for the Nuggets.

This was their ideal outcome, after all. Rockets win, extend the series to Sunday, let Houston and L.A. wear each other out a little more, open the West finals against someone on a quick turnaround and maybe, if it's the Rockets, with the additional burden of travel. It was good to be a Nugget on Thursday, just before they turned their focus to wishing Game 7 into a quintuple-overtime exhaust-a-thon.

Sunday would have been Game 1 of Lakers-Nuggets had L.A. won on Thursday. Instead, the Nuggets will be resting in Denver.

3. The Magic have a serious problem.

Game 6 win or not, the attention Dwight Howard turned on his touches, or lack thereof, illuminates that Orlando can't go inside all the time and especially in the fourth quarter of close games because Howard doesn't make free throws. He was 59.4 percent from the line in the regular season and is at 60.4 in the playoffs and 52.3 against the Celtics -- a lot of opponents wouldn't mind him getting more touches either.

We're not quite in Hack-a-Shaq land, but close. Shaquille O'Neal in his prime was an offensive terror with drop steps and other moves at 310, 320 pounds. Howard is not close to that level, although he is a better defender at age 23 than O'Neal was anytime in his career. Shaq had years where he was good at the defensive end, Howard could have a decade of greatness.

It becomes more than an individual issue because no one else on the Magic can be depended on to hurt opponents inside. The plan, understandably, was to surround him with weapons fanned out on the perimeter. But that forces Orlando to rely on jump shots, and winning 83-75 on Thursday (BOX | RECAP) meant surviving 36.6 percent from the field. Being unable to go inside late in close games, getting three-point happy is a tough existence for a championship hopeful.

4. The calmness of Rick Adelman

This was the moment, the very moment, that illuminated a major reason the Rockets hired Adelman as coach before last season. The steady hand in challenging predicaments (no Yao, no starter taller than 6-foot-9 Luis Scola, Houston entering an elimination game in the wake of a blowout loss), the experience of deep playoff runs -- it all paid off.

Yeah, maybe the Rockets were just a little ready for Game 6. Great first quarter that immediately put the Lakers on their heels, and an energized showing by the Houston shrimps essentially going seven deep. Adelman tightened the rotation, with Carl Landry and Kyle Lowry the only real work off the bench, and still got a 21-15 fourth-quarter advantage and a 19-11 finishing kick from a group that did not look tired.

5. The options are growing for the Nuggets.

Another looking-ahead consideration: If the Lakers win, and it is a big if, Denver got a lot of looks at L.A. against small ball and saw the Rockets get outrebounded by only six despite the great size disparity.

It doesn't mean the Nuggets will do it because there is a lot to be said about keeping the rebounding of Nene and the defense of Kenyon Martin on the court together, and the energy of reserve Chris Andersen is a major intangible bonus, but there are options and options are always very good. A lineup of Martin or Nene or Andersen plus Carmelo Anthony, Dahntay Jones, J.R. Smith and Chauncey Billups is an option. There are some possibilities for a quick Denver lineup, and the Lakers are not doing well handling energy.

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