In the NBA Playoffs, sometimes one or two big plays determine the outcome of a series, and the Los Angeles Lakers have historically found themselves on the right side of those big moments.
Such was the case on May 23, 2009, when a clutch steal from Trevor Ariza sealed a road win against the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals. The victory gave the Lakers a crucial 2-1 series lead.
The Lakers and Nuggets had split the first two games at Staples Center, and both were nail-biters that were decided by two and three points, respectively. Most assumed the Nuggets would get a boost from returning home to the high altitude of Denver but the young Lakers proved to be up to the task.
Los Angeles got a virtuoso performance out of Kobe Bryant, who exploded for 41 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals. He also nailed four clutch free throws down the stretch that would extinguish any hope of a comeback for Denver.
Bryant wasn’t the only one pitching in, as Pau Gasol poured in 20 points and 11 rebounds while Ariza had 16 of his own while hitting 3-of-5 from downtown.
Still, despite Bryant’s brilliance and a solid night from the rest of the Lakers, the Nuggets hung close, relying on veteran point guard Chauncey Billups to lead them through the fire while star forward Carmelo Anthony had a forgettable outing.
Anthony shot just 4-of-13 from the field but managed to chip in 21 points thanks to 14 trips to the free throw line. Billups added 18 points and seven assists of his own.
With 36 seconds left and the Lakers up by just two, 97-95, the Nuggets put the ball in the hands of Kenyon Martin to inbound it on the sideline. Ariza read Martin’s pass perfectly, taking advantage of a miscue between Martin and his intended target Anthony to lunge forward and get the steal.
Anthony was forced to foul Ariza to prevent the breakaway, but he calmly sank both free throws, which would ultimately seal the game.
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