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Dave McMenamin

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Nuggets rise while Lakers struggle with past issues

By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted May 22 2009 1:27PM

LOS ANGELES -- Nuggets coach George Karl was so amped in the hours prior to Game 2 that before he uttered a word in his pregame press conference he started pounding his hands on the podium to the tune of the drum solo in Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight."

For those of you who can't remember how the song goes after not seeing Kevin Garnett out on the court lip syncing along to it at the TD Banknorth Garden since March, the lyrics begin: "I can feel it coming in the air tonight."

What ended up in the air was a crucial jump ball between Pau Gasol and Chauncey Billups on the Lakers' end of the floor with 18.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Nuggets leading by two. What followed was Trevor Ariza grabbing Gasol's tip and the script of the game diverging from the lyrics.

There was Ariza falling to the floor on Thursday night after collecting the ball for a moment -- but the foul call, a night when 56 whistles were blown, wasn't coming.

"Looked to me like [Carmelo] Anthony pushed on Trevor and Trevor tried to get rid of the ball," said Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson. "No foul was called and they recovered the basketball."

Denver pushed the lead to three with a Billups free throw, Derek Fisher missed a three from the corner at the buzzer and the Nuggets held on to win 106-103 and even the Western Conference finals at 1-1.

(Watch a replay of Game 2 on NBA TV on Friday, May 22 at noon ET.)

"The whole thing was there was just a demand that we had to win this game," Karl said. "There was an inner spirit."

The Nuggets channeled that spirit in myriad ways. Karl looked to his past musical tastes with one of the most entertaining pregame press conferences in NBA history that started with Collins and ended with an earnest statement that the four teams that are still standing in the postseason truly are the four best teams in the league and his team belongs there.

Billups, muzzled in Game 1, scored 27 in Game 2. No two of them were bigger than the layup he conjured at the end of the first half by throwing an inbounds pass off of an unsuspecting Kobe Bryant's back.

"Last time I did that I think I was in high school and I dunked it," Billups said about the hoodwink hoop that drew Denver within one at halftime after it trailed by 13 with 2:40 to go in the second quarter.

While coach and captain used their past for inspiration, Carmelo used the game to continue to erase the history of disappointment in Denver and establish the type of player he wants to be and the type of team he wants to play on going forward.

"I think this team last year, the [Lakers'] lead probably would have went from 10 to 20," said Anthony. After scoring 39 points in Game 1, he scored 34 points on Thursday but said that wasn't his focus -- expounding in his postgame comments about his nine rebounds and determined defense on Bryant -- but dismissing any pride in his points. "We came a long way. We've been through some battles throughout the season, throughout the playoffs and for us to fight back from that Game 1 that we gave away, that just goes to say a lot about our team."

It also says a lot about the Lakers, who were left looking like the team that showed up against Utah in the first round and let double-digit leads dwindle down to nothing on a nightly basis.

The Nuggets used their past to improve, L.A. keeps making the same mistakes.

Jackson has preached the importance of improving throughout the Playoffs. L.A. seemed to remedy its penchant for having leads disappear against the Rockets in the second round, winning going away by an average of 21.5 points in its four victories.

While one weakness subsided, another sprung up as the Lakers came out flat in several of the Houston games and never gave themselves a chance to win.

Now, after losing a game in which one of their self-inflicted problems resurfaced against a Nuggets team that's rolling and presents a whole slew of problems of their own -- Melo, Chauncey, an aggressive frontline, an equally deep bench -- the Lakers are looking mighty vulnerable heading to Denver where the Nuggets are 6-0 in the postseason, winning by an average margin of 17.5 points up in their elevated altitude.

"We're not the best road team in the NBA for no reason," Bryant said after scoring 32 points. He was confident as he always is. He has the same inner spirit working for him on his mission for a fourth ring that the Nuggets do in their mission for the franchise's first. He gets teammates involved, says the right thing, puts in the work, knows the reason why his last six seasons ended without lifting Larry O'Brien and has changed himself to make sure that streak ends this year.

The same can't be said for the rest of Bryant's team.

To borrow a term from Jackson, just as there was no "connective tissue" in the lessons learned between rounds for the Lakers and there is no collective confidence in the group like the Nuggets have.

It just drips through Denver. Kenyon Martin scored 16 points with a broken finger on Thursday. Linas Kleiza shook off a second round in which he shot just 4-for-13 against Dallas to score 16 points on 5-for-8 in Game 2.

The Lakers had Fisher shooting blanks again going 1-for-9, the Incredible Shrinking Andrew Bynum returned with just two rebounds in 19 minutes of playing time and Sasha Vujacic got called out by Jackson for the second straight game for only playing for himself.

"They've got a fight on their hands over there," Martin said. "Cleveland got a fight on their hands, as well. So it's not just gonna be us and Orlando going to lay down so they can play. That ain't going to happen. I'm going to make sure it don't. Ya'll can go home and play NBA Live if ya'll wanna see that matchup. We're going to have something to say about it."

The Nuggets might have something to sing about it, too.

When Karl exited the postgame press conference he shouted over his right shoulder, "Let's go Phil Collins!" The only question is which Collins hit with be Karl's anthem before Saturday's Game 3 -- "Take Me Home" or "Against All Odds."

NBA.com's Dave McMenamin will be covering the Western Conference finals between the Lakers and Nuggets. If you have a question or comment for him, send him an e-mail. You can alsofollow him on Twitter.

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