The Denver Nuggets were fortunate to get a victory in their last game after failing to close out a team playing without its superstar. That could be an important lesson heading into Friday's game at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers, who will try to win a third straight game without injured star Kobe Bryant.
The Nuggets (32-26) are in the mix for a playoff berth in the Western Conference and appeared to be cruising to a victory Wednesday over reeling Minnesota, which lost All-Star forward Kevin Love to a concussion in the first quarter.
Denver led by as many as 24, but squandered that lead before scraping out a 113-107 victory as Ty Lawson made four free throws in the final 17.6 seconds. Lawson had 24 points and rookie Keith Faried added 16 and 12 rebounds, but the win left a sour taste in coach George Karl's mouth.
"Worst win of the year. There's an immaturity to how we finish games off,'' he said after the Nuggets won for the sixth time in nine contests. ''There's an immaturity to how we play with leads. Fortunately, we figured out how to win it. It wasn't very pretty.''
That immaturity could also be a lack of cohesion as the Nuggets mix and match personnel due to players dealing with injuries. Al Harrington scored 11 points while laboring through 22 minutes with a knee problem, and Danilo Gallinari scored 18 in his second game back after missing 10 due to a fractured left thumb.
"It was a little hard to move laterally," Harrington told the team's official website. "But I'm done complaining about it. Just going to take it game by game. I can shoot. I can't really drive and spin like I want to. Hopefully it starts feeling a little better."
Wilson Chandler, however, likely will miss his seventh straight game due to a groin injury.
Harrington and Faried may be in the spotlight, moreso since coach Mike Brown said Bryant will miss a fourth consecutive game due to a sore left shin following Friday morning's shootaround for the Lakers (37-22). That's because Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have given the Nuggets fits all season.
Bynum has averaged 23.0 points and 13.0 rebounds while shooting 69.8 percent, while Gasol has contributed 16.7 points and 11.0 boards as Los Angeles has won two of the three matchups.
Both played key roles Wednesday when Los Angeles wrapped up a 2-1 road trip without its All-Star guard by rolling past San Antonio 98-84. Bynum had 16 points to go with a career-high 30 rebounds, Gasol had 21 and 11 and Metta World Peace continued his strong recent offensive play with a season-high 26 points.
"Metta stepped up big and he hit a lot of clutch shots," said Bynum, who became the fifth player in franchise history with a 30-rebound game. "(Steve) Blake did too. Matt Barnes shot freely so that's why we have teammates and they picked up the slack. I was just playing defense."
Barnes and Blake combined for 23 points off the bench Wednesday, and World Peace has averaged 19.0 points his last four games - well above his season mark of 7.1.
There is no timetable for Bryant's return, and the All-Star guard averaged 17.7 points while shooting 27.5 percent (19 for 69) against Denver this season.