LOS ANGELES – Another lead was slipping away, another opportunity about to skirt past the Denver Nuggets. Chauncey Billups(notes) felt the nightmare happening all over again. The Los Angeles Lakers had rushed by the Nuggets in the closing minutes two nights earlier, and now they were doing so again.
No more, Billups vowed as he took his place in Denver's huddle. No easy baskets, he barked. Get tough. Make the Lakers pay for coming into the lane.
Make. Them. Pay.
Finally, for once in their cursed playoff history with the Lakers, the Nuggets shoved back. On this night, even Kobe Bryant(notes) fell at their feet. Derek Fisher's(notes) last-gasp 3-pointer dropped woefully short of the rim, and the Nuggets walked off the court with a 106-103 victory, having squared the Western Conference finals at a game apiece.
Some 30 minutes later, Kenyon Martin(notes) stood in front of his locker and delivered another pointed message to Laker Nation. Anyone who's looking forward to watching Kobe duel LeBron in the NBA Finals might want to make a contingency plan.
"Y'all can go home and play NBA Live or something," K-Mart grunted, "if y'all want to see that matchup."
Nike can keep putting on its Kobe & LeBron puppet shows. Let David Stern and his comrades at Disney drool over this season's dream Finals matchup. If the league has already anointed the Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers as its conference champions, the Nuggets didn't pay attention.
"They got a fight on their hand over here," Martin said. "And Cleveland got a fight on their hand, as well. It ain't just going to be us and Orlando lay down, so they can play in two weeks.
"That ain't going to happen. I'm going to make sure it don't."
K-Mart made sure, for one night, at least. His layup with 29.6 seconds left put the Nuggets ahead to stay, ending an 11-game playoff losing streak to the Lakers that dated to the 1985 conference finals. The Lakers swept the Nuggets out of the first round a year ago, and the popular feeling was that they had already absorbed the Nuggets' best shot in this series after rallying past Denver in the opener.
So when the Nuggets quickly gave back a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter? Everyone knew what was coming next. Just another mile-high collapse. Hadn't the Nuggets advanced through the first two rounds of the playoffs too easily? Even Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier(notes) questioned the Nuggets' ability to stare down adversity, and he wasn't alone.
"So-called experts thought we were going to fold?" Martin said. "Nobody in this locker room did, man."
That's the difference between these Nuggets and those of years past. As Martin also said: "We believe."
Billups, more than anyone else, has given Denver its faith. He's steadied the Nuggets throughout the season and he did so again on Thursday after the Lakers ran out to a 13-point lead with less than 2½ minutes left in the second quarter.
As the Nuggets tried to inbound under their basket on the final play of the quarter, Bryant inexplicably turned his back on Billups. Billups threw the ball off Bryant's jersey, caught the carom, then darted baseline for a layup to send the Nuggets into halftime down only a point.
"Last year, the lead probably would have went from 10 to 20," Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony(notes) said. "I'd be sitting here talking to you about a loss last year, where this year our team is so much mentally tougher."
That includes Anthony himself. He has raised his game in these playoffs to a level where only the elite reside. After scoring 39 points in the series' opener, he went for 34 in Game 2 and defended Bryant credibly in the final quarter – all while playing on a tender ankle.
"It seems like his confidence then kind of spread to the other guys on the team," Fisher said.
In truth, George Karl might have been the only Nugget in need of a self-esteem check after the team's disheartening loss on Tuesday. As Karl sat in the coach's office, door open, after that game, he looked like a beaten man. His morose attitude carried over to the post-game news conference, prompting, he said, a couple friends to call and question whether his children had died.
"I was kind of in shock, I think," Karl said. "…We were one rebound, one free throw, one jump ball away from probably having the biggest win in Nuggets history."
The Nuggets, fortunately, have learned to ignore their coach's occasional pity parade. To show just how much they've grown from last season, Karl kept the Nuggets here after Thursday's game. A year ago, he didn't trust his players to police themselves and forced the team to jet home between its two games in L.A.
The Nuggets simmered over that edict. Now, to disrespect these Nuggets is to embolden them. Even after the Lakers struggled against the Rockets, Billups scoffed at the suggestion that anyone actually thought Denver could win the West finals.
"People have picked us because it's just boring to just say the Lakers are going to win," Billups said. "Before the playoffs even started, we were supposed to lose to New Orleans. We haven't forgotten that."
The underdog role suits them well, and the Nuggets now return to Denver with the one victory they sought. They'll play the next two games in high altitude, and already there are questions whether the Lakers remain fatigued from their long series with the Rockets. The Lakers' big men have disappeared once again, unable to exploit their size advantage against the smaller Nuggets. Lakers coach Phil Jackson also said he needed to give Bryant a "mental break" in Game 2, which could explain why neither Bryant nor Pau Gasol(notes) bothered to watch Billups on that costly inbounds play.
The Lakers still have time to find their legs and heads, though the sooner they do, the better. LeBron can wait. Win or lose, Kobe and his Lakers have discovered this much: They've got another fight on their hands.