The Denver Nuggets came to LA with a number of obstacles riding against them. They were down 1-0 in the series, two of their players, JR Smith and Kenyon Martin, were injured, and they had lost 11 straight playoff games against the Lakers.
Everything changed Thursday night.
The Nuggets, against all odds—with the media rooting against them, and the referees making lopsided calls—would not quit.
Game Two was nearly a polar opposite to Game One when it reached halftime. LA outscored Denver 31-23, the reverse of Game One, and LA was the one to lose a lead, up by 14 at one point in the second, and down to a 55-54 lead at the half.
Denver capitalized on a 14-2 run to finish out the half, sparked by Linas Klieza and Chauncey Billups.
In the third quarter, the Nuggets came out of the locker room with lots of intensity, running around and stealing some errant passes.
To maximize his team's energy, George Karl went with a lineup not yet seen in the postseason—Billups, JR Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Klieza, and Chris Andersen.
The squad proved prosperous, as they hustled, battled physically, and put forth solid defense.
Since the game was tight, it all came down to execution late.
A poke away by Nene on a Kobe drive proved huge, leading to a jump ball that was thrown away by a falling Trevor Ariza. Billups was fouled and hit both free throws before hitting one more from the line a few seconds later.
Denver sat in a relatively comfortable position, up three with 4.3 seconds left, and Derek Fisher missed a desperation three-pointer as the Nuggets out-lasted the Lakers 106-103.
The entire dynamic of the Western Conference Finals has changed now.
No longer does Denver have to worry about being down a debilitating 2-0, as they come back to the Mile High city tied 1-1 with the West's defending champions.
What was truly astonishing was how much fight there is in this Nuggets team. They would not be deterred from winning this contest, even as the referees called an LA-biased game. Denver took the ball to the hoop over and over, with no foul call, especially for 'Melo as he went up for layups, got hacked, and no whistle.
He would not be denied, though, with key rebound put-backs in the fourth quarter. Overall, Anthony finished with 34 points and nine rebounds, out-shining Kobe, who had 32 and five rebounds respectively. 'Melo's 34 was the fifth straight time in the playoffs he has scored over 30 points, a Nuggets' NBA record.
In all, Denver was tested thoroughly and ended up passing with flying colors. Mr. Big Shot Billups made huge shots all game, finishing with 27 points and playing a much more aggressive and energetic contest throughout.
The ball is now in the Nuggets' Pepsi Center court, stealing home court advantage from the Lakers.
Denver has an opportunity to go up 2-1 at home, where they have won 16 straight games, and are hot, going 23-6 overall in their last 29 games.
For the Nuggets to do just that, they must have another big game from both Anthony and Billups, hustling, with hard-nosed defense from Birdman, Martin, Nene, and Jones, and the intangibles must be there in the form of special plays by reserve players.
Tonight, that special player was Klieza, who hadn't played much to end this season, and ended as the Nuggets' third leading scorer with 16 points.
Denver cannot just win with 'Melo and Billups, just as LA can't with just Kobe and Gasol.
Teams win basketball games, teams win conference finals, and teams win championships.
Tonight, the best team on the court was no doubt the Denver Nuggets.
As the national media sleeps on the Nuggets, look for Denver to win Game Three, energized by their raucous crowd, and take a lead that was unthought-of by many Saturday night, 9:00 pm ET, on ESPN.