Lakers control the boards in Game 4, seize control of series

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From the coach’s office to the locker room, the conclusion was unanimous.

The difference between a 3-1 series deficit and a 2-2 cage match came down to one thing for the Denver Nuggets.

“Rebounding,” guard Arron Afflalo said.

“Rebounding is what undid us,” forward Al Harrington said.

“I think everybody knows why we lost the game,” coach George Karl said. “It was because we didn’t rebound.”

The final outcome of Game 4 of the Western Conference playoff series between the Lakers and Nuggets wasn’t decided until the final 60 seconds, but Los Angeles threw its weight around for 48 minutes of a 92-88 victory Sunday night at Pepsi Center.

Playing physical from the opening tip, the Lakers grabbed 19 offensive rebounds that led to 28 second-chance points, while Steve Blake and Ramon Sessions hit two late 3s to help Los Angeles take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Game 5 is Tuesday at Staples Center.

“It’s going to be difficult, there’s no question about it,” Afflalo said.

After overcoming adversity all season, the Nuggets face their most daunting task yet – winning three straight games against a championship-caliber Lakers team, including two on their home court.

“I wish it was 2-2, but I still think we’ve got a series to play and it’s going to be fun on Tuesday night,” Karl said. “I think it’s a powerful challenge for us and I don’t think it’s an impossible challenge.”

Based on their performance Sunday night, the Nuggets have reason to believe that they can bring the series back to Denver for Game 6.

They matched the Lakers blow for blow throughout the night and were tied at 86 after Danilo Gallinari knocked down a 22-foot jumper with 1:06 remaining.

With everyone in the building figuring the Lakers were going to hand the ball to Kobe Bryant and then get the heck out of the way, Pau Gasol set a hard screen on Gallinari, and Sessions knocked down a three-pointer in front of the Denver bench with 48.1 to go.

The Nuggets then missed a scoring chance when Andre Miller was called for offensive goaltending on a driving layup attempt by Harrington.

“I thought I made the layup,” Harrington said. “Andre said he thought it was coming out. I just wish I’d made it straight through then we wouldn’t have had that issue.”

With the Nuggets in need of a stop, Bryant found former Denver guard Blake alone in the corner for another back-breaking three-pointer. The Lakers were 3-for-15 from long range until Sessions and Blake connected late.

“They got the two threes to go down, but conceptually that’s what we’re trying to do at the end of the game – not let Kobe, (Andrew) Bynum and Gasol beat you,” Karl said.

Bryant, who averaged 34.5 points in the first two games of the series, finished with 22 to lead six Lakers in double figures. Gallinari led the Nuggets with a playoff career-high 20 points, while Miller added 15 off the bench.

After combining for 28 points and 30 rebounds in Denver’s Game 3 victory, Nuggets big men Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee managed a total of 14 points and 11 rebounds in Game 4.

“I feel like the bigs, including me, weren’t as aggressive on the boards as the game before,” McGee said. “They did a better job than we did. I feel we didn’t play as hard as we did last game.”

Sparked in part by reserve forward Jordan Hill (11 rebounds, seven offensive), L.A. was able to control the tempo by controlling the glass. The Nuggets finished with 18 fast-break points but never established a breakneck pace while scoring just 37 points in the second half.

“It’s frustrating but we’ve got to move on,” Afflalo said. “We have to get out there and compete to the end.”

On a team filled with 20-somethings, veterans Harrington and Miller showed that they’re not about to go quietly into the offseason.

Miller attacked the Lakers guards early, scoring 10 points in the final 4:30 of the first quarter. Harrington, meanwhile, wore a protective mask over his broken nose and finished with nine points and six rebounds.

“It was challenging,” Harrington said. “Hard to breathe with it. I don’t know if it affected my shot at all. Just different having it there.”

Harrington will pack the mask as he and the Nuggets head to Southern California in search of some Hollywood magic.

They have been playing must-win type of games for the past five weeks, but there is no longer any room for error.

“There’s still a lot of basketball to play,” Gallinari said. “We know we can win games against them and the series is still open.”

NOTES: Denver has lost 18 straight playoff games when scoring less than 90 points … The Nuggets trail a playoff series 3-1 for the 11th time in their history; they are 4-6 in Game 5 in those instances but have never come all the way back to win the series … Denver went 3-for-19 from three-point range, marking its fewest makes and lowest percentage in a playoff game since going 2-for-16 against the San Antonio Spurs on April 30, 2007 … Despite attacking the paint, the Nuggets attempted just 12 free throws – their lowest total in a playoff game since shooting 12 foul shots against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 29, 2006 … In 25 postseason meetings, the Lakers have never lost consecutive playoff games to Denver.