May 13, 2012, 2:26 AM EDT
It wasn’t easy for the Lakers in Game 7, just as it wasn’t easy for them the entire series. But in the end, L.A. was at full strength for the first time this postseason, and played to its strengths for much of the night, ending Denver’s season 96-87 at Staples Center on Saturday, and advancing to a second-round date with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the process.
Lakers starting forward Metta World Peace, playing for the first time in these playoffs after serving his seven-game suspension for elbowing James Harden in the head a couple of weeks back, made his impact felt on the defensive end all night long, holding Danilo Gallinari to just three points on 1-of-9 shooting.
The reintroduction of World Peace into the Lakers lineup was noticeable, but more important was the assertion and re-emergence of Pau Gasol as a dominant presence inside.
Gasol played like we all know he can in this one, after two consecutive dismal playoff performances that left us wondering what needed to happen in order to snap him out of whatever funk he happened to be in. Gasol was aggressive from the start in Game 7, and dominated on the glass with 17 rebounds — 11 offensive — while leading the Lakers in scoring with 23 points.
Andrew Bynum had 18 rebounds of his own, and finished with 17 points, but did so on just 4-of-15 shooting.
Kobe Bryant finished with 17 points and eight assists, but for the most part, deferred to his teammates when he saw consistent double teams from the Denver defense all night long. Bryant uncharacteristically took just two field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, and scored just three points on an attempt behind the arc with under a mintue to play that pushed the Laker lead to eight, and out of reach for a Nuggets team that had fought back time and again all night, and all series long.
In addition to the return of World Peace and the re-assertion of Gasol, Steve Blake was huge offensively for Los Angeles. He made timely buckets throughout the game, and finished with a big 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting off the bench.
It was a tightly-contested game for most of the night, but the Lakers were able to get out to a 16-point lead with less then seven minutes to play in the third. The Nuggets refused to fold, however, and played with the heart, desire, and drive that they had all series long. Denver was able to come back to tie the game before the third quarter was through, and trailed by just a single point heading into the fourth.
Bryant’s defense took center stage at that point, as he switched onto Lawson for the remainder of the game. Lawson was controlling the game for Denver at every turn, and had 24 points on 11-of-14 shooting through three quarters. But in the fourth, with Bryant defending, he was unable to get anything going, and went 0-for-5 in the final period without a single point and just two assists.
There weren’t too many surprises in this Game 7; with World Peace back in the starting lineup, the Lakers’ defense was stronger, and with Gasol showing up and giving maximum effort, the Lakers are always going to be tough to stop. As L.A. looks forward to its matchup with Oklahoma City, consistency will be the word thrown around the most in the Lakers’ camp, especially when discussing the play of the bigs inside.
Bryant is always going to be there as an offensive option that is scary for his opponent. But if OKC chooses to take him out of the equation with frequent hard double teams as Denver did in Game 7, the Lakers now know that they have plenty of other options.
Whether or not the Lakers can stop the weapons the Thunder have offensively is another matter entirely. But at least after Saturday night’s win to closeout the Nuggets, they’ve earned themselves the opportunity to give it their best shot.
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