DENVER — This was no conspiracy.
The referees, the NBA and the networks didn't have a thing to do with knocking the Denver Nuggets out of the playoffs Friday night and setting up at least one half of the Kobe-LeBron dream matchup in the final.
Los Angeles beat the Nuggets and the Nuggets beat themselves in Game 6. The refs called a grand total of 22 fouls against the Nuggets in their 119-92 loss - and seven of those came in the fourth quarter with the game out of hand.
This one was simply a matter of one potentially great team finally hitting its stride against a good one that ran out of gas, patience and poise.
On offence, the Nuggets were never the aggressors in the decisive loss, rarely taking the ball to the hoop to create contact and get free throws. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups - the heart of this team - were off target (a combined 8 for 24), Nene was invisible (eight points despite only four fouls) and the Birdman, Chris Andersen, never took off (two points, one rebound).
The Lakers, meanwhile, shot 57 per cent, led by Kobe Bryant's 12-for-20, 35-point, 10-assist night.
They get lots of credit for that, though Denver's inability to get in anyone's face on the perimeter or put a body on anyone inside made things way too easy on a team that doesn't need any help.
Even the Denver fans who had been booing everything in purple or a referee's shade of grey turned on their own team when Luke Walton spotted up for a wide-open 20-footer late in the third quarter that made it 75-59.
Before the game, Nuggets coach George Karl said all the talk about the officiating had obscured what was a pretty good series - at least until the finale.
"In a lot of ways, we've helped them put their pieces back together and they've helped us grow up faster," Karl said.
The Nuggets still have some growing to do.
The Lakers need to piece together a game plan for either the Orlando Magic - or LeBron (and the Cleveland Cavaliers).
The enticement of a Kobe-LeBron final has shaped so much of the debate about the officiating in this series, during which the losing coach has complained after Games 3, 4 and 5 but only Phil Jackson's protests were enough to draw a fine after Denver evened the series at 2.
The Nuggets felt they got an unfair whistle in their loss in Game 5 and wondered if the $50,000 in fines was enough to buy the officiating advantage.
Had Denver been able to guard Bryant, account for the suddenly resurgent Lamar Odom (20 points), neutralize Pau Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds) or make a shot when it counted (41 per cent over the first three quarters), maybe that debate could have been continued to Sunday.
Instead, the Nuggets have to look back at squandered opportunities, not so much in Game 6 but earlier in the series.
Denver might have been the better team throughout Games 1, 2, 3 and 4 but couldn't make a key inbounds pass at the ends of Games 1 and 3, which ended up costing them in a pair of close losses.
The Nuggets also fell apart at the end of Game 5, getting outscored by 16 over the final 16 minutes, and all the old slams, the pre-Chauncey slams, on this team - lose their cool too easily, rush too many shots, don't commit on defence - came flooding back.
By the end of Game 6, calling the Nuggets unprepared for the big time only felt like piling on. They were losing by 27, fans were filing out of the Pepsi Center - a good season, maybe the best in franchise history, was coming to a sad end.
Meanwhile, the Lakers and Kobe move on.
And if there's a conspiracy in the NBA, it will have to play out in Orlando or Cleveland.
by The Canadian Press