Friday May 22nd, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- The LeBron James-Kobe Bryant summit, tentatively slated for the first week in June, is starting to encounter some serious scheduling conflicts. Twenty-four hours after James and the Cavaliers lost home-court advantage to Orlando, Bryant and the Lakers did the same Thursday night against Denver. What once seemed a given, that James and Bryant would eventually square off in an epic battle for individual and collective basketball supremacy, is suddenly in severe doubt.

It is dangerous, after one game in a seven-game series, to draw too many ironclad conclusions. But the Nuggets and the Lakers have now played twice at Staples Center and they could not have looked more evenly matched. In Game 1, the Nuggets outplayed the Lakers, but squandered a double-digit lead in large part because they missed 12 free throws. In Game 2, the Lakers outplayed the Nuggets but also squandered a double-digit lead in large part because they missed four free throws in the fourth quarter.

"We probably returned the favor," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said.

The fact both games at Staples went down to the final minute -- "Bounce of the ball here, we're up 2-0," Bryant said. "Bounce of the ball there, they win Game 1" -- gives the Nuggets a significant psychological boost. If they can play the Lakers to a draw in Los Angeles, they should be able to handle them back in Denver, where they have the noise, the altitude and the perfect playoff record.

The Lakers, preternaturally cool, seemed no more concerned than when they lost home-court advantage to Houston in the Western Conference semifinals. The Rockets put a fright into the Lakers, but without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, they were in no position to finish the upset. The Nuggets, on the other hand, are one of few teams that can actually match up with Los Angeles. In the first two games of this series, Bryant has scored 72 points. Carmelo Anthony has countered with 73.

But it was a little-known reserve -- and noted Laker killer -- who kept the Nuggets competitive in the first half, when they were down 14 points and on the verge of collapse. With Dahntay Jones in foul trouble and J.R. Smith ailing from a strained calf, Linas Kleiza came off the bench and hit four three-pointers, finishing with 16 points and eight rebounds. Kleiza might have been a surprise to some teams, but not the Lakers, who have been burned by his feathery touch before.

"I don't think we win the game without L.K.'s wild cards," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "I call them wild cards. He gave us two wild cards. He gave us a scoring wild card and he gave us a rebounding wild card."

The Nuggets stayed in the game thanks to their wild card, but they finished it with their usual closer. Chauncey Billups, who has built a reputation on making clutch free throws late in playoff games, shot 10 of them in the fourth quarter and sank nine. The Lakers, on the other hand, watched Shannon Brown miss a fourth-quarter free throw, Trevor Ariza miss another and Pau Gasol clank three of them.

Both games of this series have come down to free-throw shooting and a key hustle play late in the last minute. On Tuesday, with the Lakers leading by two points, Ariza made the steal with 29 seconds left to clinch victory. On Thursday, with Denver leading by two, Ariza scrambled after a jump ball, but his pass to Derek Fisher was intercepted by Nene and the Nuggets held on. The numbers reveal just how little separates these teams. Through two games, the cumulative score is 209-208. On Thursday, the Lakers had 43 rebounds, the Nuggets 42. The Lakers had 21 assists, the Nuggets 20. The Lakers shot 45 percent, the Nuggets 44. Both teams made 35 field goals. The series, as the stats would suggest, is 1-1.

But the Nuggets have to feel like the leaders. They are heading back to Denver with something even more important than a split: the confidence to actually pull this off.

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