DENVER (AP) To make the NBA Finals for the first time - and bring their tattoos, athleticism and exuberance to the biggest stage of all - the upstart Denver Nuggets must win two games in a 48-hour span against a savvy Los Angeles Lakers team that is shooting for its 30th Finals appearance.
Oh, and L.A. hasn't lost back-to-back games since March.
The Nuggets might very well be the better team in the Western Conference finals, with a deeper bench, more muscle and better health than the tired, injured and often disjointed Lakers. But they also tend to implode at the worst times.
There's the taunting after big shots, the complaining after calls and the botched inbounds passes that cost them Games 1 and 3 and a chance at brooming the Lakers right out of the playoffs.
Now, they're one loss away from summer vacation.
"For most of the series, we outplayed them for most stretches of the game,'' Chauncey Billups said. "We just couldn't get over the hump in the fourth quarter in a few different situations.''
Nor can they get out of their own way at times.
Denver has committed 11 technical fouls in this series and defensive stud Dahntay Jones is one more flagrant-1 foul away from a suspension.
Coach George Karl said he won't rein in his players for Game 6 in Friday night in Denver, however.
"You guys are almost saying you've got to have savvy and poise to be a championship team,'' Karl told reporters Thursday. "I mean, you think the Detroit Pistons have the poise that the San Antonio Spurs have? No, I mean there's a different way of handling emotional, passionate, intense players. We have some guys who are emotional. Maybe a little too emotional. But for me, I'm not going to tell them to stop that because I think that stops them from becoming a competitor.
"Right now, we're competing on the best stage on a pretty good level. I think the Lakers know we're there.''
The Lakers have plenty of their own problems, inconsistency among them, but in Game 5, they showed they're not always so soft in the middle and they don't have to be a one-man band, either.
The Lakers finally discovered ways to get more balanced play, especially from their bigs.
"That's what the conversation has been about this entire postseason, our team, our potential and our capabilities,'' Derek Fisher said. "But how do we, as a group, open that space to be what we can be? ... It's possible something clicked for us as a group last night against this team.
"We may have found some things we can do that allows us to attack them from everywhere. We feel we can't be beat when everybody's getting a chance to play.''
Kobe Bryant lured double coverage then passed to his teammates with Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol doing the damage inside in the fourth quarter as the Lakers capped a 23-5 run and cruised to a 103-94 win Wednesday night.
"We've had stretches where we've played excellent defense,'' Bryant said, "but the competition we're facing with this Denver Nuggets team is unlike anything we've ever seen. They have so many scorers, they have an inside presence. So ... I'm very proud of how we performed in that stretch.''
Odom's 19 points and 14 rebounds were certainly the biggest reasons the Lakers reversed their disparity in points in the paint and grabs off the glass from Game 4.
Karl thinks Lakers coach Phil Jackson's rant helped, too.
Although it drew $50,000 in fines, Jackson's complaints about the officiating in Denver paid off in the Lakers' 16-7 advantage at the line in the fourth quarter, Karl suggested.
So, Karl took his own crack at the crew, suggesting Nene fouled out thanks to three or four phantom fouls and questioning how Gasol (one foul) could have played such a clean but active game.
On Thursday Karl insisted he wasn't blaming the officials for Denver's demise, but he took another shot at them when saying some of his younger players were letting the officiating get under their collective skin.
"We're hoping and we believe that the officiating won't be a problem,'' Karl said. "When you're getting hit in the back of the head, knocked on your (backside), you're human beings; you react to people of authority. The referees are the ones that have the authority and control the game the way they want to control it.''
Bryant has been blunt about the Lakers' fatigue factor in this series, and he and Gasol each played 45 minutes in Game 5. But Bryant said he's fine, suggesting he'll "get plenty of rest when I'm on a beach in Cabo.''
The Nuggets would love nothing more than to help him book that trip by next week.
Freelance writer Victoria Sun in Los Angeles contributed.
Copyright 2009 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited