Photo courtesy of Jeff Gross, Getty Images

….and Kobe Bryant’s efforts were enormous. They always are. One thing we’ve learned to appreciate about Bryant is that no matter how bad a game he’s playing, his effort is always there. His will to keep trying is always there. He’s never doing NOTHING. He may be maligned for talking trash on and off the court, but you know what? He usually backs it up.

After Andrew Bynum claimed earlier today that close-out games are easy, he walked onto the court and did nothing but make it hard for his team to win. His effort was there for the first two games, then it disappeared for the next two quarters. It reappeared for a game and a half…and then disappeared for the following three quarters. When Bynum’s efforts finally showed up in the fourth quarter of this close-out game, it was too late.

The Lakers should have entered tonight’s game with a singular goal – win and move on. Instead they came in with a lackluster effort that left their offense in disarray and their defense a porous hot mess. Denver had all the energy, all the will and all the swag. The Lakers had Kobe Bryant, and if not for him, that deficit at the end of the game would have been a lot more than three points.

Despite a 34-point effort in the final quarter, the Lakers still fell short and are now forced to head back to Pepsi Center for another crack at closing out this series.

Kobe Bryant – A back-to-back-to-back trio of threes in the final quarter helped get the Lakers within two points of the 15-point deficit, and who else could accomplish that but Bryant? He scored seven points in the first quarter, 11 points in the second and third and 14 in the fourth. He shot a respectable 44% from the field, hit 10-11 free throws, converted 5-11 from downtown, grabbed six rebounds, handed out five assists, had two steals and in over 43 minutes of playing time, only committed three turnovers. In the category of players who lay it all out on the floor in every game, he tops the list. It seemed obvious to Bryant, early on, that if his big guys weren’t going to participate in tonight’s game, he’d have to compensate. Sadly, it’s not a new occurrence. There was just a hope that, with the emergence of Andrew Bynum and the leadership of Pau Gasol, Bryant would never have to carry this team alone. But tonight, neither his co-captain nor his dominant-when-he-feels-like-it center, came to play until the final quarter, and by then, how much did Bryant have left? Two missed threes, that’s what. This loss was not only a shame because the Lakers missed out on closing out the series, but because they left an effort like Bryant’s in vain.
Late 4th Quarter Push – With 6:35 left in the final quarter, and the Lakers down by 15 points, it appeared the KCAL crew were prepping for Game 6 coverage, but then Gasol hit a running hook shot, Bynum scored on a layup, Bryant shot a three pointer and then the Big Three suddenly started putting up some points. After Bryant’s third three pointer in a row, the lead was nothing but a pair of points with just under a minute left in the game. After Al Harrington and Ty Lawson shot just 1-2 from the free throw line, and the Lakers behind by just four points, Ramon Sessions hit a three that closed the lead to a single point. After Andre Miller hit both free throws, and the Lakers had 12.8 seconds to tie it with another one from downtown, neither Bryant nor Sessions could convert.

Laker Big Men – We can point to the lack of bench production again. We can point to the absence of Metta World Peace. But the bottom line is, when only one of the big three is putting in the effort, there’s no way the Lakers can win. It’s difficult to call Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol “big men” when they played as little as they did tonight. In a game that needed them to be the most efficient and the most dominant, they stood back and watched as the no All-Star, no championship Denver Nuggets embarrassed them on their own home floor. Gasol and Bynum watched as layups and dunks came through, right past them. They watched as Kobe Bryant had to do it all, and waited until the final six minutes to lend him a hand. After the first half, they combined for just 10 points on 3-12 from the field and 12 rebounds (four offensive, which is a real thinker when the Lakers missed 30 of 45 shots in those first 24 minutes). When the final buzzer sounded, their combined box scores were 25 points on 9-19 from the field, 7-10 from the free throw line, 21 rebounds, a pair of assists and four blocks. COMBINED. No one expects Gasol to shoot lights out with his face-up jumpers or starting rattling off three-pointers like Reggie Miller, but as a veteran and a co-captain of this team, will yourself to the rim, will yourself to grab another rebound or contest a shot. No one expects Bynum to get 30 rebounds or 10 blocks again, because it was never the rebound or the block itself that was impressive, it was his EFFORT that earned him those stats that was respectable. This team thrives on its size and the skills with which those two big men advantages bring. Every coach knows that. Kobe Bryant knows that. Bynum and Gasol know it too…sometimes.
Low Energy, Low Effort – Except for Bryant, and sure, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake, the energy was just not there and Denver knew that and took advantage.
Weak Offense – “Weak” does not describe it. Again, aside from Bryant who can create his shots, the Lakers’ playmaking abilities and offensive execution were apparently on sabbatical tonight. There were possessions where dribbling occupied 12-14 seconds of the shot clock, and the remainder was left for the unfortunate player who received a pass and had to think quickly of what set they could run and then running it, or attempting to anyway. The Lakers were guilty of ball stopping today, among other things
Weak Defense – The Lakers may have won the battle of the boards by five rebounds, but they allowed Denver to score 58 points in the paint and 19 points on a fast break. The Nuggets were literally getting to the hoop with not a single yellow jersey trying to stop them. The Lakers were a bunch of observers on the defensive end tonight, and if they want to win in Denver, that end of the court needs to be far more active than it was tonight.

When Phil Jackson coached the Lakers through the playoffs, the message on the white board in every close-out game remained the same: A.B.C. – Always Be Closing. Tonight there was one closer trying to do just that, but he couldn’t do it alone.

When asked what happened in tonight’s game, Bryant answered, “I almost bailed us out, that’s what happened. That’s not something we can rely on to get us to a championship.” And he’s absolutely right. So if the Lakers want to close it out on Thursday in Denver, their efforts have to collective.