At that time, Avatar was the top-grossing film, the Black Eyed Peas were still a thing, and Instagram wasn’t even invented.
So yeah, a lot has changed since then. To refresh our memory, let’s revisit the 2009 Western Conference Finals between the Purple and Gold and Mile High City.
Cast & crew
The Lakers had a star-studded starting lineup featuring Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum, with Trevor Ariza and Derek Fisher. The supporting cast wasn’t too shabby as well led by do-it-all forward Lamar Odom and decent roleplayers like Luke Walton, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, and Sasha Vujacic playing quality minutes.
They were of course coached by “Zen Master” Phil Jackson, who was then looking for a record-breaking 10th ring and his first since returning to Tinsletown after an acrimonious exit in 2004.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, had a more rag-tag starting crew of Chauncey Billups, Dahntay Jones, Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and Nene. Coming off the bench were JR Smith, Chris Andersen, Linas Kleiza, and Anthony Carter. It could be noted that the Nuggets traded for Billups at the start of the season, sending Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons.
Calling the shots was George Karl, who steered the Nuggets to their first-ever Western Conference Finals since 1985 when the team lost to—you guessed it—the Lakers.
Road to the WCF
It was only fitting that the Lakers and the Nuggets faced each other in the Western Conference Finals as they finished the regular season as the top two seeds. The Lakers finished with a 65-17 record, while the Nuggets had a 54-28 slate. They both cruised through the first round of the playoffs, needing only five games each to eliminate the Utah Jazz and the New Orleans Hornets, respectively.
It was Anthony’s first-ever series win in the postseason and the Nuggets’ first since 1994. “It took me five years to get that gorilla off my back. It’s a great feeling,” Anthony told reporters. They continued their strong showing in the next round, disposing of the Dallas Mavericks in five games as well despite Dirk Nowitzki averaging close to 35.0 PPG in the series.
It was a different story for the Lakers. They ran into the Houston Rockets, who were playing splendidly despite losing Tracy McGrady to a season-ending injury early in the year. Despite an inferior lineup, the Rockets went the distance against Kobe and company, with Yao Ming, Ron Artest, and Aaron Brooks (remember him?) leading the way. The Lakers had to go through the proverbial needle hole, winning Game 7 at home, 89-70 with Gasol putting up 21 points and 18 rebounds to offset Kobe’s anemic 14-point showing.
So, the stage was set for the Western Conference Finals.
At that time, Kobe was at the absolute peak of his powers. He was a close runner-up to LeBron James for the MVP trophy. He played all 82 games for the second straight year and averaged 26.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 4.9 APG.
Curiously enough, that was a tough time for Melo. He saw his scoring dip to 22.8 PPG after averaging 27.0 in his previous three campaigns. He wasn’t even named to the All-Star Game that year despite the Nuggets’ impressive record. Instead, it was Billups who got selected.
Carmelo & Kobe 🔥 pic.twitter.com/lmlZLqcu7c
— ThrowbackHoops (@ThrowbackHoops) September 16, 2020
Still, many salivated over the collision course between the two superstars. True enough, they lived up to the billing. Kobe’s maniacal competitiveness ignited the fire in Melo. Who could forget their memorable skirmishes inside the paint? You know that highlight: Kobe and Melo intensely jostling for the rebound, neither of them willing to budge. Even though they were playing different positions, they usually found themselves guarding each other and their faceoffs were as tough as an overcooked steak.
Asked about their matchup, Kobe said: “It was a lot of fun, he’s (Anthony) a bull down there. I am a little out of my weight class, but I’ll give it my best shot.”
How it went down
The first two games were as tight rush hour traffic in LA as the Lakers and Nuggets took a 1-1 split with an average winning margin of only 2.5 points. The much-anticipated superstar battle was good as advertised. Kobe dropped 40 and 32 points, while Melo put up 39 and 34 markers. Game 1 is also mostly remembered for “Black Mamba’s” heroic effort. After reinjuring his right ring finger, he had Lakers trainer Gary Vitti pop it right back in the middle of the game.
The Lakers took a 2-1 lead after Game 3 after a hard-earned 103-97 win. Kobe was masterful once again as he scored 41 points, including 15 from the charity stripe. He added six boards and five assists. He also worked on the defensive end, helping put the clamps on “Mr. Big Shot,” who was limited to 18 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
The Nuggets evened things up with a convincing 120-101 victory in Game 4 despite Melo continuing his poor shooting, missing all but three of his 16 attempts. Billups and Smith picked up the cudgels, scoring 24 points each. The hardnosed frontline of Nene, Martin, and Andersen also came up big, combining for 42 boards to outrebound the entire Lakers roster. Kobe scored 34 points but only shot 10-of-26.
With the matchup reduced to a best-of-three series, the Lakers made sure there won’t be any upsets. They took care of business at home in Game 5, with Kobe playing more of a facilitator role as he scored 22 points and dished out a game-high eight assists. It resulted in four other Lakers finishing in double digits led by the 19 markers of Odom off the bench. The Purple and Gold clinched the series on the road in Game 6. The team erected a 13-point lead at halftime and never looked back en route to the easy 119-92 victory on Melo’s birthday. It was an anticlimactic end to the intense matchup.
The Lakers entered the Last Dance and faced the Orlando Magic featuring Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Rashard Lewis. But the Lakers were just too much for their young adversary, winning the title in just five games. Kobe finally earned his much-coveted ring without Shaquille O’Neal and was named Finals MVP.
Jackson also won his 10th championship, eclipsing the legendary Red Auerbach for most by a coach in NBA history.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, failed to build on their momentum that season. That was the last time they advanced to the Western Conference Finals prior to this year. After their loss to the Lakers, the Nuggets tried to run it back with the same core in 2010. But they lost to the Jazz in the first round, beginning a string of four straight opening round exits. The following year, Melo and Billups were shipped to the New York Knicks along with Carter, Renaldo Balkman, and Shelden Williams in a multi-team midseason trade along with the Minnesota Timberwolves. In return, the Nuggets acquired Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and Kosta Koufos.
So yeah, what a difference a series makes.