LOS ANGELES -- The
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
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
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
"I don't think we win the game without L.K.'s wild cards," Nuggets coach
The Nuggets stayed in the game thanks to their wild card, but they finished it with their usual closer.
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
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.