Sunday May 24th, 2009

DENVER -- The story on Sunday morning will undoubtedly be that the Lakers regained control of the Western Conference finals with a gritty 103-97 victory in Game 3 (RECAP | BOX). And it should be. Writers and talking heads alike will heap praise on Kobe Bryant, who despite getting battered like an over-the-hill prize fighter, overwhelmed the Nuggets with a 41-point, six-rebound, five-assist effort.

They will point out that for the second time in three games the slippery Trevor Ariza sealed a Lakers victory with a steal off an inbounds pass.

And they will laud Pau Gasol, who is well on his way towards assuming the NBA's Alex Rodriguez Award for the most maligned star in the sport, for coming up with two impossible jump shots in the fourth quarter to keep the Lakers in the game.

All deserved, all accurate. But not why the Lakers won the game.

They won it because Denver lost it.

Carmelo Anthony and George Karl like to tell everyone about how this is not last year's Nuggets. They point to the mental toughness the team shows late in games and their willingness to fight if the going gets rough. They point to the composure they have shown in hostile environments, evidenced by their impressive run through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

They talk about a lot of things. None of those things, however, were on display Saturday night.

This was vintage Nuggets: sloppy, foul prone and unable to control their emotions in critical situations. Exhibit A: In the first six minutes of the third quarter the Nuggets surged to a 64-58 lead; in the last six, Nene, Anthony and Kenyon Martin took seats on the bench after committing their fourth fouls, wasting a prime opportunity to blow the game wide open. With Anthony (along with the rest of his teammates) unable to regain a rhythm in the fourth quarter, the Lakers pounced, outscoring the home team 32-18 in the final period to seize the win.

"We just didn't play with enough team-ness," said Karl, coining his own word. "The offensive rhythm of the game, especially the second half, we didn't have a leader."

Exhibit B: After Ariza came out of nowhere to swipe Anthony Carter's inbound pass in Game 1, he did the exact same thing to Kenyon Martin in Game 3. With Martin struggling to see the floor over the long arms of Lamar Odom, Ariza snuck in behind Anthony and yanked the ball free, forcing Anthony to commit his sixth foul.

"Lamar Odom, you got to give him a lot of credit," said Karl. "He zipped 'Melo out. 'Melo and Chauncey [Billups] were open. The pressure on the passer, I think, made the mistakes."

Then there is the most unforgiveable of sins: the technical fouls. Three technical fouls, to be exact. Three emotionally charged outbursts from Linas Kleiza, Anthony Carter and J.R. Smith that handed the Lakers three free throws and wound up costing the Nuggets three points.

Kleiza's infraction came in the final seconds of the second quarter, when he shoved Gasol underneath the rim. Making matters worse is that Kleiza's shove came with a closed fist, leading some courtside observers to wonder if the overly cautious NBA will construe it as a punch. (A league spokesman said the play will be reviewed on Sunday)

Carter was tagged late in the third quarter for shoving Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic, and Smith was T'd up less than two minutes later for taunting Vujacic after knocking down a buzzer beating three-pointer.

"We can't get caught up in all that," said Martin. "We have to adjust to the way the game is going and keep playing."

"It is [tough]," said Billups. "Especially the kinds of techs we had. Those become huge plays at the end of the game. You already know that most times it's going to be a two, three or four point game, every game. It's not like we did it on purpose. It's just emotion. But we got to do a better job controlling that. Those [plays] count."

Sure do. Subtract three points from the Lakers total and Ariza's steal comes when the Nuggets are up by one instead of trailing by two. Subtract those points and Denver probably isn't shooting three straight 25-foot jump shots in the final 15 seconds. Subtract those points and the Nuggets probably win the game.

Instead, they are faced with a must-win situation on Monday to avoid going back to L.A. in an inescapable 3-1 hole. They will have to regroup on Sunday and forget about letting another game in this series slip away.

"[This was] a great opportunity we missed out on," said Billups. "It's very frustrating. You got to have a short memory, especially in the playoffs. Every game is different. Every game is its own story. It's unfortunate but this is the Western Conference Finals. It's going to be a great, long series."

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