Just when they were about to make things interesting, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers blew it.
Unable to stop Dirk Nowitzki all night, and their big lineup too slow to cover the outside shooting of Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry down the stretch, the Lakers lost, 98-92, to the Mavericks last night in Dallas to fall in a 3-0 hole in their Western Conference semifinal.
All 98 teams in NBA history that have trailed by that margin have wound up losing the series. Thus, the Lakers’ two-year reign as NBA champions and their three-year grip on the Western Conference crown, plus the unprecedented coaching career of Phil Jackson, are all on the brink of going kaput — maybe even with the humiliation of a sweep.
Of all the reasons they’re in this predicament, the most stunning is that this pedigreed team has fallen apart when it matters most. They wasted a 16-point lead in Game 1, losing at the buzzer when a 3-pointer by Bryant went in and out, and they failed to hold a 7-point lead with 5:05 left in this game. Dallas rallied with an 18-6 run jump-started by 3-pointers from Nowitzki and Stojakovic.
“We’re disappointed,’’ said Jackson, who has never been down 3-0 in a series, much less been swept, in 20 years as an NBA coach. “We feel like Games 1 and 3 we controlled the pace of the games. They were better at finishing the games than we were. But we still believe we’re going to win the next game and we’ll go from there.’’
Missing the suspended Ron Artest, Jackson gambled with a starting lineup featuring 6-foot-10 Lamar Odom at small forward, alongside 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Lakers logically pounded the ball inside, and controlled the game nearly the entire second half.
Perhaps Artest’s absence caught up to them at the end. Jackson acknowledged “there was some fatigue factor in there.’’ He also admitted that his super-sized lineup was much better protecting the paint than defending the 3-point line.
And there was that Nowitzki fellow.
Dallas’s superstar scored 32 points, making 12 of 19 shots. With the Lakers’ big guys crowding the lane, he went back to his roots and got comfortable behind the 3-point line, burying 4 of 5. He only took four free throws, but made them all.
“Just about everything that happened down the stretch was a direct result of him either scoring the ball or making a play to get somebody a shot, or make a pass for an assist for a 3 or a 2 or whatever it was,’’ Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
Terry scored 23, including some of the points that helped ice the win in the closing minutes. Stojakovic scored 11 of his 15 in the final quarter. Jason Kidd added 11 points and nine assists.
Bulls 99, Hawks 82 — Looking every bit like an MVP, Derrick Rose sliced up host Atlanta for a career-high 44 points as Chicago seized a 2-1 series lead and control of the this Eastern Conference semifinal with their best performance of the postseason in Game 3.
“He’s tough to cover anyway,’’ said Atlanta’s Jeff Teague (21 points), who had the futile task of trying to guard Rose much of the night. “But when his jump shot is falling, he’s the MVP.’’
Rose was dominant from the opening tip, slashing into the lane for a basket that prompted Atlanta to call a timeout before game was a minute old. He finished off the Hawks midway through the fourth with back-to-back 3-pointers, hopping down the court, serenaded by chants of “MVP! MVP’’ from a hefty contingent of Bulls fans.
“Just attacking the whole game,’’ Rose said. “That was my whole thought process.’’
The Bulls looked every bit like the team that won 62 games during the regular season. In addtion to Rose, Chicago’s bench played a key role in a decisive second-quarter spurt. And everyone chipped in on the boards, leading the Bulls to a 47-34 edge that included 18 offensive rebounds.