By Art Garcia, NBA.com
Posted May 22 2009 1:47PM
LOS ANGELES -- The bird's eye view suggested at worst disinterest and at best sleepwalking. The Lakers just scored a ridiculously easy dunk off a 50-foot pass as the Nuggets big men failed to get all the way back down court.
Los Angeles was leading by 13 on Andrew Bynum's slam, which included a foul on Nene, with less than four minutes left in the first half. Up to that point, George Karl's unstable but entertaining pregame monologue had more zip than his team. After the dunk, it clicked. (NBA TV will broadcast replays of Game 2 on Friday at noon and Saturday at 4 p.m. Times are EST.)
"We were discussing what happened on the play before, so we didn't get back," said Kenyon Martin, one of guilty Nuggets. "It was a frustrating play, but we didn't get down. We stayed together and kept fighting for 48 minutes. That's what it took."
The Nuggets were in danger of getting run out of the gym in the most important contest in the franchise's checkered and largely marginal postseason history. While they generally refused to call it a "must-win" situation before the game, the odds of Denver beating the defending West champs four out of five were about the same as Karl stealing the Tonight Show gig from Conan O'Brien.
Conan has nothing to worry about. The Lakers do. From the beak of a bird, the Nuggets are headed back to "Mountain Time" with control of the Western Conference finals. The series is knotted 1-1 after Denver kept its grip Thursday night, 106-103, in the second straight game decided by a bucket.
"We can't wait to get back on our court," said Carmelo Anthony, averaging 36.5 points in the series. "We've been in L.A. a little bit too long now. We want to get back home and in front of our crowd."
The next two games -- Saturday and Monday night -- are at the Hysteria/Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets are undefeated (6-0) during the Playoffs, having beaten New Orleans and Dallas by an average of 17.5 points.
While the end of any NBA game carries the most drama and the most scrutiny, and Game 2 deserves its share for the strong finish by Melo and Chauncey Billups, the fine defensive job done on the best in the game in that department and the Lakers grousing about a non-call with 16 seconds left, going back to the last 3 1/2 minutes of the second quarter is warranted.
"They had us in a bad place in that first half," Billups said. "Melo and myself, we just kept saying, 'Keep fighting, keep fighting.'"
The Nuggets fought back and carried the momentum of a 16-4 run into the half, reversing the script from two nights prior. As Karl alluded during a more focused chat after the win, "The game flip-flopped." The Lakers were outplayed for much of the first half in Game 1, but rallied late to take a one-point lead at the break. L.A. was up one again Thursday night going into the locker room.
This time, though, it didn't feel as good.
"It was frustrating, but this is what they do," Kobe Bryant said. "Denver is an explosive team. They make up [ground] very, very quickly. They can go on runs very, very quickly."
Most of the runs of are led by Melo and Billups, but the Nuggets didn't get far into the Playoffs relying on just those two. But the depth that helped wear down the Hornets and Mavericks didn't come to the surface in Game 1.
Karl needed his bench to deliver and he got two "wildcards" from one guy. Linas Kleiza, scoreless in the first game and averaging less than six points in the postseason, provided the double whammy of scoring (16 points) and rebounds (eight). The Lithuanian by way of Missouri tallied five points in the spurt to close out the half, which included his second 3-pointer of the quarter.
"Kleiza hurt us in the first half coming off the bench," Kobe said after following up his 40-point effort with 32. "In Game 1 we kept their bench points down."
Denver's bench mob only saw a five-point increase from the opener (16 to 21), but when considering the Lakers won the first game by two (105-103), five points are huge. And production from the reserves isn't just measured by points.
Chris Andersen's game is largely about reaction and the one he noticed from Staples faithful said he was doing something right.
"I'm starting to get booed again," the Birdman told teammate Steven Hunter inside a postgame locker room that took a 180 in mood from Tuesday night. "A lot of haters out there. I love it."
The Nuggets' second unit, especially Kleiza, helped turn around the Lakers' sizable rebounding edge in the first quarter. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Bynum were having their way down low in the early going before drying up down the stretch. Gasol had 11 points in the second half, while Bynum and Odom combined for just two free throws.
The Nuggets still faced their trials in the second half. The Lakers took a seven-point lead in the third quarter and overcame a seven-point deficit in the fourth with a 9-0 run. Denver also coughed up a seven-point lead in the final period of Game 1, but this time the Nuggets steadied the ship.
Melo had a key offensive rebound and put back for a 99-96 lead with 2:22 left. K-Mart had a pair of big shots down the stretch and Billups made the free throws that counted, scoring five of Denver's last seven points at the line.
And while many will remember the ultimate finish, the ending of quarter No. 2 made this a series. The Nuggets just needed a wakeup dunk.
If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.
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