Oh, what a night!
After getting robbed of our ticket dollars in both Lakers games last season (Lakers head coach Phil Jackson rested all of his starters in the first match-up and didn't play Kobe Bryant at all in the second), the Lakers and Nuggets put on a great show for 19,155 Pepsi Center attendees plus a national TV audience on Thursday night. Both teams were rested and their core players - sans Andrew Bynum for the Lakers and Kenyon Martin for the Nuggets - were healthy and ready to go at it.
The Nuggets 118-112 victory proved a lot of things, many of which Nuggets fans are already knew but the rest of the NBA world is probably waking up to on Friday morning. First, the 144-113 drubbing by the Pacers on Tuesday night was an aberration, the result of playing four-games-in-five-nights and having played hard in every game to that point. Second, an undersized Nuggets team is at its best when running opponents out of the building...especially at home. And third, the Nuggets have as good a chance - if not better - than any in the Western Conference to contend with the Lakers. In fact, these Nuggets may be the only Western Conference team that doesn't fear the boys in purple and gold, and you just know the Lakers were thanking their lucky stars in the 2010 playoffs when Utah bested Denver in Round 1.
Thursday night's Nuggets victory over the Lakers was particularly satisfying because previous victories had been so reliant on the Nuggets big men - Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen - having big nights defensively. And yet in this latest victory, it was the Nuggets little men (plus Carmelo Anthony) who stole the show with their offense and bristling fast pace that ultimately brought home the big W for Denver.
Point being, George Karl - after being humiliated by the Lakers in four straight playoff games in 2008 - has figured out how to beat the NBA's best team in a number of ways. As long as Melo is wearing a Nuggets jersey, of course.
The View from the Not-So-Cheap-Seats...
...I got to Pepsi Center about 45 minutes before tip-off and the place was already more filled up than it had been for any previous game this season.
...you could feel the energy in the building early. Thanks in large part, unfortunately, to 40% of the crowd wearing Lakers jerseys. And yes, they're as annoying as ever.
...before tipoff, the Pepsi Center jumbotron crew recycled the customized South Park cartoon from 2009 in which a Nuggets jersey-wearing Cartman takes down Jack Nicholson.
...Melo was hot early...then disappeared for a few quarters...and then erupted at the end with a barrage of turnaround jump shots and powerful moves to the basket. Melo does so many things well that we tend to pick on the few things he doesn't do well too much (but it would be nice to see him take more than three free throw attempts in an entire game). During my appearance on Mile High Sports Radio's Elephants in the Room show earlier Thursday, I said Melo would have to go for 40 for the Nuggets to win. I was off by eight.
...neither Chauncey Billups or Melo had an assist in the first half and the Nuggets had only 10 assists total at halftime. Remarkably, the Nuggets were down just five at the midway point of the game.
...is Billups taking too many quick shots early in the shot clock?
...Kobe Bryant still gets booed mercilessly from the Colorado crowd every time he touches the ball or his name is announced. Unfortunately for all of us, I think he just feeds off the negativity and plays even better than normal as evident with his second-half performance.
...it was nice to see former Nugget Steve Blake out there. How good would he look as our third point guard right now?
...anyone who follows the NBA knows that Lakers backup guard Shannon Brown is a great athlete. But you can't quite appreciate how gifted he is athletically until you see him in person.
...during much of the first half, I was worried that the Lakers were going to run us out of our own building and not the other way around.
...a big fight broke out in the stands between a few Nuggets and Lakers fans and all were dismissed.
...Nene was much more aggressive than usual, routinely going right at Lakers star center Pau Gasol.
...Kobe's spacing between himself and his defenders is unbelievable. I mean, did you see those shots he was making in the second half?!
...the fourth quarter didn't start until 10:50pm MST. When will the NBA begin to realize that it's alienating future fans - i.e. kids who have to get up for school the next day - with these obnoxiously late weeknight games?
...Ty Lawson's confidence is clearly back. As awful as the Nuggets played in Indiana, Lawson performed well and it seemed to carry into Thursday's victory. As we saw last season when Lawson first played the Lakers in Denver, the Lakers have no answer for Ty Lawson.
...Melo played great, but the Nuggets didn't take the game over until a lineup of Al Harrington, Gary Forbes, J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo and Lawson were put into the game in the fourth quarter. Read that lineup again because those were the guys on the floor when the Nuggets cemented their lead for good.
...I didn't like seeing J.R. get yanked around the 3:30 mark of the fourth quarter as he was getting super hot, but Coach Karl clearly doesn't trust him in end-of-game situations.
...who's dumber? Shannon Brown for over-dribbling and then passing the ball to a clueless Ron Artest on the Lakers final meaningful possession, or Artest for shooting the shot with plenty of time left on the shot clock? I'm no Laker fan, but Kobe Bryant and Kobe Bryant only should be touching the ball in any end-of-game scenario.
...before being so quick to dismiss the contributions of the recently departed Bret Bearup and Mark Warkentien, just remember who was responsible for assembling many of the players - including Lawson, Smith, Afflalo and Forbes - who contributed to Thursday's big victory.
Non-Stiff(s) of the Game
-Carmelo Anthony and Ty Lawson: Melo was great throughout the game, especially with his rebounding. But it was Lawson who sparked the team to victory in the fourth quarter while Melo was on the bench, setting up Melo to finish the job with several turnaround daggers.
Stiff of the Game
-Lamar Odom: The experts say the Lakers go as Lamar Odom goes, so it wasn't surprising that the Lakers lost on a night when Odom shot 1-6 from the field and played just 25 minutes.
I've said it over and over again, but George Karl and his coaching staff deserve credit for getting a big-time effort - emotionally and physically - out of these Nuggets each night this season (sans that Pacers game, naturally). If the Nuggets can continue to out-work their opponents, they can overcome their lack of size.
As I wrote in my latest SB Nation Denver column, this is a team everyone in Colorado should be rooting for.