If you were wondering why coaches and general managers around the league were infuriated with Memphis for gift-wrapping Pau Gasol to the Lakers in February, look no further than his stat line on Sunday: 36 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists, all game highs. Sure, the 7-foot Spaniard helped the Lakers secure the top seed in the Western Conference for the first time since 2000, but much like Shaquille O'Neal when he was in L.A., his importance and presence down low increases during the playoffs. That was certainly the case Sunday as Gasol scored at will, set up his teammates with one-touch passes when he was double teamed and cleaned up the glass with Lamar Odom as the two combined for 30 rebounds.
"I always knew he could perform at this level," Kobe Bryant said. "This just ain't Memphis."
After flashing a wide grin before tip-off and reminding his teammates that it was "playoff time" as they walked onto the court, Kobe Bryant proceeded to play one of his worst halves of basketball this season, going 2-for-10 for four points to go along with three fouls. Bryant finally woke up after Nuggets guard Anthony Carter pushed Bryant after fouling him mid-way through the third quarter. At one point, after completing a three-point play, Bryant paced down the courtside seats and said, "Don't worry about it. I got it. Don't worry about it." He wasn't lying as he finished with 32 points, 28 coming in the second half and 18 in the fourth quarter.
"[Carter] thought I hit him the face when I was going out of bounds but it was completely unintentional. I had to be Neo from The Matrix to see him," Bryant said. "It's funny sometimes when [other teams get physical] it kind of opens up the basket a little bit and that's what it did for me."
This series may be littered with superstars in both starting lineups, but the winner may ultimately be decided by the bench players. The Nuggets held a 41-to-32 edge on Sunday, but the Lakers got the most out of their bench. L.A. had four players contributing off the bench -- including Luke Walton, who scored 16 points -- while the Nuggets relied on Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith, who combined for 38 points, as Karl went with an eight-man rotation. In the past, Phil Jackson has dreaded playing these made-for-TV noon-time games because the Lakers usually come out lethargic, but Jackson smiled when he was asked about how the team would react to the early start this season. "No, Shaq's in Phoenix now, he's not here," said Jackson with a wry smile. "There's some guys who just can't get to bed at night and he was one of those kind of guys. I think this team gets to bed; not everyone, but most of them." When pressed to ask who might not make their bed times Jackson simply said, "I'm not naming names." About two hours before the game the first of two Nuggets buses heading to Staples Center was forced to pull to the side of the Santa Monica Freeeway after it broke down. About half the team was forced to wait on the side of the road while the second bus which arrived 30 minutes later picked up the stranded players and coaches. "I think Mitch Kupchak might have been under the bus," Karl said jokingly. "I'm glad it was in L.A. and not in Minnesota with four inches of snow." The usually subdued afternoon crowd at Staples Center was unusually nasty when Carmelo Anthony stepped to the free throw line in the first quarter, showering him with "DUI" chants that were louder than the "MVP" chants Bryant usually gets. Anthony was arrested last week on DUI charges in Denver. One can only imagine what Nuggets fans have in store for Bryant, who had his own legal problems in Colorado not too long ago. George Karl had dinner with his son, Coby, a rookie guard on the Lakers on Saturday night and didn't allow him to feel too good about being favored in their first-round series. "I trash talked him more than he trash talked me, probably because I'm more nervous than he is," said the elder Karl. "My best line was when we beat you I'll help you through it because I've had experience in it [losing in the first round] so I'll help you through it." The Nuggets coach was nursing a bruised hip and sat on a couple of white boxes before the game as he talked to reporters. As he gingerly got up, he said, "Phil's had both hips done," referring to Jackson's two hip surgeries. "Do you think he'd go for a race? Forget about the games, one race to decide it all."
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