Unlikely hero in Nuggets win last night: Linas Kleiza

In a blog yesterday, I stopped short of guaranteeing a Nuggets victory over the Lakers last night, but pointed out that I expected one. Before the opening tip, though, I suddenly had reason to anticipate disaster. After all, the lead referee for the game was Steve Javie, the quickest whistle in the league, who pretty much singlehandedly gave the Dallas Mavericks a "W" in a May 11 contest. And in the first quarter, my worse fears were realized. Javie rung up Dahntay Jones for four fouls in less than six minutes (at least a couple of them utter bullshit), sending the Nugs a message that he wouldn't allow them to play their usual physical game. As a result, the squad grew understandably tentative, allowing the Lakers to run up a double-digit lead. At that point, they were basically playing five on eight -- their quintet versus the on-floor Lakers plus the three refs.

At that point, the old Nugs might have folded -- but then, two key moves were made. First of all, coach George Karl, recognizing the way things were being called, inserted Linas Kleiza, a jump shooter by trade. Secondly, Kleiza, who's been all but invisible during the playoffs, did everything that was expected of him and more, more, more.

After Denver took the matchup 106-103, most commentators credited Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, and they deserve all the props that came their way (despite another inexplicable Billups free-throw miss in the final seconds). But without Kleiza, the Nuggets wouldn't have been able to virtually erase their sizable deficit by the end of the first half, and his sixteen points overall were absolutely clutch. On great teams, unexpected players step up at unexpected times -- and last night, Kleiza certainly did. Can't wait 'til Saturday to see who's next.

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