While the Lakers “bigs” got all the credit from ESPN and the major media outlets Saturday for stepping up in a 96-87 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 7, it’s clear defense was the difference.
Specifically Ron Artest, or Metta World Peace, who completely shut down whoever he was guarding Saturday in his return from a seven-game suspension.
World Peace also did plenty of damage at the offense end, scoring 15 points and hitting four big threes in the Laker victory.
Steve Blake, who struggled at the defensive end, made up for his lack of D with a playoff career-high 19 points.
Kobe Bryant played a more passive role, getting his teammates involved with 17 points and eight assists.
Pau Gasol also came to play at both ends, fishing with 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. But after the game, he gave the credit to the return of World Peace at the Staples Center.
“(Metta) had a great impact,” Gasol told TNT afterward. “Metta does a great job. He just gets into guys. He forces things. He makes things happen for us on the defensive end.”
While Denver’s guards blew past Blake and the Lakers front line for much of the night (Ty Lawson scored 24 points, Arron Afflalo had 15), typical go-to’s such as Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller struggled against World Peace. Gallinari was 1-9 from the floor, finishing with three points and four turnovers. Miller was 1-10, finishing with three points and five turnovers.
Arguably the difference in the series for Denver, Miller’s only field goal came against, you guessed it, the Lakers “bigs.” The 6-foot-2 Miller upfaked Gasol and then scored over the slacking, 7-foot Bynum to cut the the Lakers lead to 78-77 with 6:51 to go … a play ESPN.com’s headline writers obviously missed.
“It’s defense, defense,” World Peace said. “It’s the little things you can’t really see. … It’s about the intangibles that I bring to the table.”
Especially when it comes to the NBA playoffs, and a team with aging super stars that don’t have the defensive presence they once had.
A year ago, Tyson Chandler converted Dallas from a soft, aging team of offensive-minded veterans, into a scrappy, gritty defensive squad that suffocated LeBron James and the Miami Heat to win their first NBA title.
This year, with Chandler gone (he still won the Defensive Player of the Year award), the Mavs are already gone from the playoffs.
Same thing for the Lakers. With Metta World Peace, the Lakers have a chip on their shoulder and play a suffocating defense that translates into team basketball at the offensive end as well.
Without him, the Lakers get pushed to seven games by a Denver Nuggets team that’s void of a superstar.
Luckily for the Lakers, they get World Peace back just in time for their showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Artest’s old friend James Harden. And while Harden – who suffered a concussion courtesy an Artest elbow the last time these two teams played – will certainly be looking for some revenge, you know the Thunder will be thinking twice about taking it right at World Peace this time around.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mike Brown sets the matchups heading into the second round, but it appears he’s finally starting to realize just how important World Peace is to the Lakers’ success.
“Obviously, we all played well, but I’d be remissed if I did not talk about Metta,” Brown said in the postgame press conference. “He was huge tonight. … His presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-19. That is our team defense, but Metta had a lot to do with that.
“I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely, freaking amazing for us defensively.”