Nuggets fight to the end before falling to Lakers in Game 7
LOS ANGELES – As Nuggets coach George Karl made the long, slow walk from the locker room to the team bus, he rarely took more than few steps without someone offering words of support.
“Great season, coach.”
“Nice job, coach.”
Karl gave a nod of acknowledgment each time. Underneath the pain of a playoff defeat, there was an unmistakable pride in what his team had accomplished.
“All year long I enjoyed their belief that they could win when no one else was believing in them,” Karl said after Denver’s 96-87 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference playoffs Saturday night.
“I think they’re pretty mentally tough for a young bunch of guys. They’re enjoyable to be around. They’re enjoyable to coach. I don’t think there are 30 NBA coaches saying that. In that sense, I’m blessed with a good situation. Their heart is bigger than people think it is.”
Seeking to become the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit, the Nuggets came about six minutes short of pulling off a heart-pumping upset at Staples Center.
In a microcosm of their season, they battled back from 16 points down in the third quarter and led by four points after Al Harrington hit a three-pointer 1:16 into the fourth.
“We wanted to move on, and we played like it,” Denver point guard Andre Miller said. “We could’ve easily folded in the third quarter, but we found a way to get some energy to get back in the lead.”
The Lakers matched Denver’s energy with defensive intensity and relentless work on the offensive glass. Los Angeles forced 19 turnovers and finished with 24 offensive rebounds, including 11 in the final 12 minutes when every possession was critical to advancing or going home.
Paul Gasol gave L.A. the lead for good on a tip-in with 6:26 remaining and Steve Blake followed with his fifth three-pointer as part of a 7-0 run that put Lakers ahead 85-78. The Nuggets never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
“We played them extremely tough,” Harrington said. “I know they respect us now. I think we gained a lot of respect throughout the league.”
Harrington and Ty Lawson finished with 24 points apiece to lead Denver, while the Lakers got huge contributions from Blake (19 points), Gasol (23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists) and Andrew Bynum (16 points, 18 rebounds, six blocks).
Los Angeles also benefited from the return of Metta World Peace, who missed the first six games of the series while serving a suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden in the head.
Fulfilling Karl’s prophecy from a day earlier, World Peace played the role of L.A. savior by finishing with 15 points and four steals while making things difficult defensively for Nuggets forward Danilo Gallinari.
“Metta World Peace did a good job,” Karl said. “He was great defensively, and he gave them a big lift offensively.”
In the locker room after the game, it was Karl’s turn to give his players a lift. He told them how much he enjoyed coaching them throughout the season, and reminded them that they should be proud of how they performed as heavy underdogs against the third-seeded Lakers.
“That moment made us all feel good,” Harrington said. “We’re just going to take that with us this summer.”
The loss sent the Nuggets into the offseason earlier than they had hoped and spoiled Karl’s 61st birthday, but it did nothing to dampen the coach’s enthusiasm for the future.
“Tomorrow or the next day when the funk gets out of your body, you’re going to be proud of the team,” Karl said. “I’m proud of the team. I’ve never been in a locker room after the season where every guy in front of me I’m happy with and I’m content with. We’re staying with the same crew and going to work next year.”
The numbers will show that the Nuggets aren’t far behind the Lakers. In 11 meetings between the teams in the regular-season and playoffs, Los Angeles held a one-point advantage in aggregate scoring.
The Lakers, though, did just enough to survive and advance.
“I don’t feel like we were beaten by a better team; they just made the plays to win the game,” Miller said. “That’s how it works out. I don’t think their experience was a big factor. I think our toughness and our heart evened that out.”