LOS ANGELES -- George Karl tells his team more stories than a father at bedtime, and in the past 10 days, he dug through his mental archive for fresh material. He regaled the Nuggets with memories of the mid-90s Sonics, falling behind the Rockets 3-1 only to force a Game 7, and the Bulls 3-0 only to force a Game 6. He reminisced about the 1996 Western Conference Finals, which essentially came down to four free throws: Shawn Kemp made two for Seattle, Karl Malone missed two for Utah, and the Sonics advanced to the NBA Finals. "You want to celebrate dominance and it's not about dominance," Karl said. "The edge is very, very thin."
The Lakers beat the Nuggets in Game 4 on Sunday when Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake made two three-pointers in the final 48 seconds. They lost to them in Game 5 on Tuesday when Sessions and Kobe Bryant missed two threes in the last 10 seconds. Suddenly, Karl's tales took on greater significance for his young charges. The Nuggets can envision a comeback of their own after a 102-99 win at Staples Center on Tuesday, which trims their series deficit to 3-2 and proves they are not as far from the Lakers as they once seemed.
When Karl was finished with all the history lessons, he added an inspirational tidbit from the present. At the end of Tuesday's film session, he showed his team an ill-timed sound bite delivered by Lakers center Andrew Bynum. Putting himself in the middle of yet another maelstrom, Bynum said closeout games are "actually kind of easy" and that "teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning." Karl vehemently disagreed with Bynum's premise but appreciated his outspokenness. "It gave me an opportunity to philosophize, which you know I like to do," Karl said. "The hardest thing in the world is to win the fourth game."
JaVale McGee, the Nuggets mercurial center, was motivated by his counterpart's words, his first foray into the playoffs, and perhaps his upcoming free agency. The 24-year-old McGee, a league-wide butt of jokes for his missed ally oops and egregious goaltending violations, played the most significant game of his life. He scored 21 points, pulled down 14 rebounds, and blocked a dunk by Pau Gasol with less than two minutes left when the Lakers were in the midst of a manic comeback. "I was trying to say, 'I'm here,'" said McGee, who came to Denver in a deadline deal from Washington. "Usually, I'm nowhere in the playoffs. I didn't want tonight to be my last game."
Last year, Blake Griffin beat McGee in the slam dunk contest at Staples Center, jumping over a car after McGee jammed three balls into a single hoop. In the second half Tuesday, on the same basket he used in the dunk contest, McGee staged an encore. He dunked on lobs, on put-backs, and on drives and dishes. Every throw-down shook the backboard. But McGee, usually short on fundamentals, did more than fly. He made a left-handed hook shot. He spun in a finger-roll while drifting away from the rim. He chased down a loose ball and then drove at Gasol for a dunk and a foul. He took more shots than Bynum or Gasol, and made as many as they did combined. McGee likely earned millions with one shocking night's work.
McGee does not even start for the Nuggets, evidence of their superior depth. As this series wears on, with Game 6 on Thursday in Denver, Karl wonders if the Lakers will start to suffer from fatigue. The Nuggets, with their bottomless bench, are practically immune to exhaustion. The Lakers hoped to win themselves some rest for the Western Conference semifinals against Oklahoma City and used Bryant for the entire second half Tuesday. He nearly eliminated the Nuggets by himself, drilling four straight three-pointers in the last five minutes, including one from the corner in which Danilo Gallinari was wearing him like a warm-up jacket. "I almost bailed us out," Bryant said. "I just started making shots left and right. That's not something we can use to rely on to get us to the championship." The Lakers chopped a 15-point deficit to one, and boos turned to standing ovations, but Bryant cooled in the final seconds and lost his first closeout game in six years.
"I'm just so damn happy," Karl said. "The euphoria in my brain is not making me think very well."
In time, he will remember every detail, and recite them all for the next generation.