The Denver Nuggets left Los Angeles with homecourt advantage in the Western Conference finals after beating the Lakers in the postseason for the first time since 1985.
They didn’t exactly skip happily home, however.
For one thing, they’re too banged up, Carmelo Anthony’s tender ankle, J.R. Smith’s strained calf and Kenyon Martin’s broken ring finger testament to the rough-and-tumble nature of this tight matchup.
They’re also too busy kicking themselves.
The Nuggets, who watched film in L.A. before flying home Friday and taking the rest of the day off, thought they should have taken a 2-0 lead back to Denver.
They’re still lamenting their loss in the opener, when Anthony Carter’slazy lob on the inbounds to Chauncey Billups was stolen by Trevor Ariza in the closing seconds to seal the Lakers’ improbable win in a game Denver had dominated but failed to seal at the foul line or by getting the ball to a red-hot Anthony in crunch time.
“We played hard, but we didn’t play smart,” Martin said. “So I feel if we would’ve (done) that like we did last night it would’ve been a different outcome in Game 1. But who’s to say? It didn’t happen that way so we’ll take the split, go home and try to get both of those.”
Game 3 is Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets haven’t lost in 11 weeks, followed 48 hours later by Game 4.
The Lakers feel they, too, should be heading to Denver halfway to winning the best-of-7 series.
“A bounce of the ball here and we’re up 2-0,” Kobe Bryant said. “A bounce of the ball here and they win Game 1.”
That’s how close this series is: both times each team, has done enough things right to have a shot at the end and enough things wrong to have plenty of regrets.
So, the Nuggets think they squandered away a game in L.A.?
“We probably returned the favor,” Bryant said.
Now, he and the rest of the Lakers will try to snare the homecourt advantage back.
“They’re a good team and they can come in our building and get both games if we don’t show up and play,” Martin said. “So, we’ve got to be on our ‘A’ game.”
Indeed, the Lakers were an NBA-best 29-12 on the road in the regular season, although they’re just 2-3 away from Staples Center in the playoffs.
The Nuggets, conference finalists for the first time in 24 years, are 6-0 at home in the playoffs.
“When you don’t have homecourt advantage, you just want to try to steal it however you can and we had a good opportunity in Game 1 and couldn’t close out,” Billups said. “Game 2, we learned from our mistakes and closed out. So we stole homecourt advantage and now we just want to try to be aggressive and play like we have been playing on our home floor.”
The Nuggets now have the home court and also the pressure that goes along with it. Still, Bryant said he expects the Nuggets to turn it up a notch in Denver.
“They’ll be playing looser, with more confidence, more energy, more aggression,” Bryant said after Friday’s film session and workout. “… It’s always been a tough place to play. They had a great home record last season, too. This season is no different.”
Actually, behind Billups, the first player in 20 years to play in seven straight conference championships, instead of Allen Iverson, these Nuggets aren’t anything like the team that lost twice at home to the Lakers in last year’s playoffs.
Take Thursday night’s 106-103 win, their ninth in 12 playoff games.
“A year ago we wouldn’t have won that basketball game,” Anthony said. “Early in the game on the road, we get down 10, 12 points, 13 points early? We’re not winning that basketball game. But that just goes to show how tough of a team we are now.”
They went from being afterthoughts in the West to a team that is three wins shy of its first trip to the NBA finals.
“We’re growing up pretty quick,” Nuggets coach George Karl said, noting the transformation from pretender to contender usually “takes two to three years” when the right pieces are in place.
“We’re doing it in six to seven months.”
With the series shifting to Colorado, both teams are calling for more consistency and production from their bench. Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar aren’t giving L.A. their usual boost and for Denver, Smith’s shot isn’t falling, Carter has been in a funk and Chris “Birdman” Andersen has his hands full guarding Pau Gasol.
Linas Kleiza came to the rescue in Game 2 with 16 points and eight rebounds while opening up the floor for Anthony and Billups, easily his best performance of the season.
It might very well have saved the Nuggets’ season, allowing them to return home lamenting their 1-1 split instead of an 0-2 hole.