DENVER – Pau Gasol(notes) didn’t play. Kobe Bryant(notes) did, but he might as well have not after producing one of those rare, forgettable games. The Los Angeles Lakers also were in the second night of a back-to-back. For them, this was little more than an early season contest, one likely to be lost among 81 others once the playoffs begin.
The Nuggets will tell you that you’re wrong.
“It was a big win, a big, big win for us,” Anthony said. “…Hopefully, it sends a big message to not only the Lakers but to the whole NBA saying we’re a legit team. We live by that.”
The Nuggets are still haunted by their loss to the Lakers in last season’s Western Conference finals, still trying to prove they belong on the same stage with the league’s elite. They feed off disrespect, perceived or real, and they listened this summer as everyone gushed over the roster improvements made by their peers. The Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers all strengthened themselves over the offseason. To the Nuggets, that meant only one thing: Once again, they were dismissed.
“Nobody picked us to win nothing,” Kenyon Martin(notes) said. “The so-called experts, basketball experts, people ain’t never dribbled a ball, ran a suicide or nothing, the so-called experts [doubt us]. Oh well, man.”
That’s why the Nuggets considered Friday the first step toward curing their social hang-ups. They’ve now won seven of their first 10 games, no small accomplishment considering they spent part of the preseason in China then were forced to play all but two of their opening nine games on the road. Friday was also just the third game they’ve played with guard J.R. Smith(notes), who began the season on suspension.
Whether the rest of the NBA likes it or not, the Nuggets aren’t going away.
The Lakers should know that by now. Prior to Friday’s game, Phil Jackson said he considered Denver “among the three or four” top teams in the West. Even then, however, he wasn’t ready to call the Nuggets a rival.
“The Sacramento Kings are our rivals,” Jackson said. “They’re a California team. They’re close to home and all that stuff.”
The Nuggets are determined to make it a rivalry, no player more so than Anthony. Jackson admitted the Lakers previously didn’t have a physical enough defender – Bryant included – to guard the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Anthony without help. That’s a big reason why they signed Ron Artest(notes), who carries some 260 pounds on his 6-7 frame.
Anthony scoffed before the game that he should be intimidated by Artest, then went out and picked up three quick fouls, including one in the first quarter after he became entangled with the Lakers’ bruising forward. Anthony composed himself at halftime then erupted for 18 points in the second half. He finished with 25 in just 30 minutes.
“It’s impossible to have a Melo stopper,” Anthony said.
The Nuggets shouldn’t get too excited by the win. What they see in the postseason from the Lakers should be dramatically better than what they saw on Friday. Barring further complications with his hamstring, Gasol will be starting at power forward, returning Lamar Odom(notes) to the bench, where he can provide some much-needed depth. Given more time, Artest will grow more comfortable with the Lakers’ system. And no one expects Bryant to go scoreless in the second half on too many more nights.
Chauncey Billups(notes) and Martin both cautioned that the Nuggets will face much bigger games against the champs down the road. But after watching Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke shake hands and give out hugs in the locker room, it was clear his team needed this win to help its own self-image. As much as the Nuggets want everyone to believe in them, they need to believe in themselves, too.
The Lakers “are at the top of the mountain,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “We have to figure out how to get ready for the opportunity in May or June to try to knock them off the top of the mountain.”