NBA: Lakers finally show a killer instinct
By Jeff Miller
The Orange County Register
DENVER — Yes, they have a conference title.
Yes, they have a spot in the NBA Finals.
And, most of all, yes, they have it.
The Lakers do, in fact, possess the very thing so many of us doubted from them.
“That definitely was killer instinct,” Luke Walton said. “That’s as focused a game as we’ve played all year. It was nice to put a full 48 (minutes) together in our biggest game of the year...so far.”
The Lakers, in their previous playoff round, famously lacked that instinct, possessing more of a wounder instinct, an ability to severely discourage Houston and then severely disappoint with their next effort.
But good luck trying to convince the Nuggets and George Karl that the Lakers are missing anything. Karl is a believer, one of the converted.
After watching Kobe Bryant lead this 119-92 Lakers no-doubter, Denver’s coach said, “I think Jesus would have had trouble covering him.”
Bryant scored 35 points on a night when the Lakers had five players in double figures, four with at least 17 points.
Facing elimination, the Nuggets absolutely had to win this game in their rowdy, home arena. Instead, they were permitted to hold the lead for an entire 39 seconds of the second quarter.
That was it. Nothing more. All the rest was Lakers.
“We did what we talked about doing after Game 5,” Trevor Ariza said. “We knew we didn’t want to go back to L.A. to finish this.”
So what, exactly, is killer instinct? What does it look like? How does it feel?
It’s execution, the Lakers shooting 57 percent from the field, 56 percent on 3-point attempts and 100 percent (24 of 24) from the free-throw line.
It looks like ball movement, the Lakers finishing with 28 assists, 10 of them belonging to Bryant.
It feels like muscle, the Lakers, outrebounded all series, grabbing 38 rebounds Friday to the Nuggets’ 27.
“I do think that was our killer instinct on display,” Shannon Brown said. “It was good to actually come out and do it, instead of just talking about it.”
The display began at the beginning, just seconds into the game, with a play that didn’t seem all that significant, a play ESPN never will include in a highlight package because it doesn’t go well with “Booyah!”
After Andrew Bynum missed a dunk, the Nuggets rebounded, with Nene’s outlet pass intended for point guard Chauncey Billups. But Bryant closed quickly from behind and knocked the ball loose, forcing Billups to foul him.
With the new, bonus possession, Pau Gasol scored the game’s first points and the Lakers, thanks to their most talented player making a play that required nothing but hustle, had just taken their first official step to their next Finals appearance.
“For us to come in here and put on the performance we put on gives us a lot of confidence,” Bryant said. “I think that shows a lot of maturity.”
Mature is about the only thing the Lakers haven’t been called so far during these playoffs. Inconsistent, yes. Unfocused, absolutely. Heartless, yup, even heartless.
They were accused of manipulating the officials, of buying a victory at home, of everything in Denver but getting the Rockies manager fired.
But they’re Western Conference champions, with almost a week to rest and prepare and think, now more than ever, about losing in the last series a year ago.
“We’re back in the Finals and that’s all I’d say to people who still question us,” Walton said. “We just played as well as we have all season. We’re picking a good time to get going.”
All the space they needed Friday came at the end of the first half, when Bryant went Biblical on the city of Denver, scoring 11 points in the final 3:09.
He finished the second quarter by hitting a three-pointer over a hard-closing and high-flying Chris Andersen, retreating quickly to block Carmelo
Anthony’s buzzer-beating final shot and then stopping to conduct a TV interview.
“The guy, No. 24, had a great five minutes at the end,” Karl said. “No one in basketball could have covered him.”
Or, as Karl would continue on to note, no one in the Bible, either.
For the record, Bryant called Karl’s Jesus remark “a tremendous honor, obviously.” He also didn’t dispute the validity of the remark.
“Our focus was there and — my man right here (motioning to Bryant) — I don’t know if we can play any better,” said Gasol, another 20 points and 12 rebounds in his pocket. “Winning is what matters. We’re four wins away from reaching our goal.”
They have everything now — momentum, a title shot, a chance to take a deep breath. They have everything, even it.
“Hopefully, that killer instinct’s in our makeup now,” Walton said. “Personally, I can’t handle another Finals loss. I’m not sure what I would do. This is a must-win series now.”
A must-win, coming right after their most win — most impressive, most convincing, most instinctual.