The Denver Nuggets climbed back into their series with the Lakers thanks to an energy and enthusiasm that was missing from the first two games in Los Angeles.
Ty Lawson scored 25 points and the Nuggets raced to an early 24-point lead on their way to a 99-84 victory on Friday night in Game 3 of their first-round series.
The Nuggets, who will try to even their best-of-seven series Sunday night at the Pepsi Center, got monster performances from two of their young big men: JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, both of whom tasted their first playoff success Friday night.
”The game for us is all about our energy and our enthusiasm,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. ”It’s not complicated for us. When we play poorly we don’t play with enough energy, we don’t push the pace and we take too many jump shots.
”It was a fun win for me. I can’t remember a win as much as I enjoyed this thing.”
Neither could McGee.
”I was real timid in the first two games and I just wanted to be extremely aggressive in this game,” said McGee, who had 16 points and 15 rebounds to go with Faried’s 12 points and 15 rebounds.
Together, they hounded Andrew Bynum, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds but was shut out in the first half, when the Nuggets raced to a 41-17 lead in the second quarter thanks to an astonishing 28-2 run.
”It was huge,” Lawson said. ”Every game we played against the Lakers we were down. We were down early. We were down big. We were trying to fight our way back into the game, so we made a point that we wanted to come out early and see how they did with a deficit.
”They reacted kind of well to it but we hung on.”
Denver led 55-39 at halftime. Then Bynum and Kobe Bryant got it going as the Lakers never got closer than four points and they faded in the fourth quarter, when they made just 3 of 14 shots.
”That’s a big hole to put yourself in, to be down 24, especially in the first half, is tough playing against a team that’s desperate,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said.
Bynum’s putback with 1:18 left in the third quarter not only pulled the Lakers to 68-64 but his inadvertent elbow on the play broke Al Harrington’s nose. He didn’t return, but the Nuggets went on a 12-5 run to regain their composure and control of the game.
”I felt like they played really well,” Bryant said. ”They played with a lot of intensity and for us it was good learning experience. I’m proud of the way we battled to get back into the game. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Karl said he wasn’t sure but suspected Harrington will be back for Game 4.
Bryant finished with 22 points on 7-of-23 shooting after scoring 31 and 38 points in the two wins at the Staples Center.
The Lakers never trailed in the games in Los Angeles, but once Danilo Gallinari’s reverse layup with 8:07 left in first quarter gave Denver its first lead of the series, the Nuggets looked unstoppable.
”It’s been tiring always having to come from a hole and having to dig out of a hole, and the energy of the game becomes fatiguing mentally,” Karl said before tipoff.
Finally, it was the Lakers doing the chasing.
The Nuggets used a 28-2 run spanning the first and second quarters to take a stunning 38-14 lead.
Lawson scored 13 of the Nuggets’ points as they scored 20 of the final 22 points of the first quarter, then teamed with Corey Brewer and Harrington on a trio of 3-pointers to stretch Denver’s lead to 41-17.
”Everything was going right,” McGee said. ”We were passing the ball the right way, we were running, everything was working.”
And McGee shared the starring role, too.
”Coach was trusting me with this game,” McGee said, ”and I feel like I didn’t let him down.”
The Lakers had a lot of fight left in them, though. Bynum’s second three-point play made it 67-60, and when his next shot was blocked, Ramon Sessions grabbed the deflection and swished a short jumper to make it a five-point game.
Bynum’s putback made it a four-point deficit, but the Nuggets pulled away again as Bryant, bothered by Gallinari’s length, kept misfiring.
”I wasn’t on my sweet spots,” Bryant said. ”They tried to keep me more on the perimeter. I wasn’t in the post a lot. I lived at the elbow the first two games and we got away from that a little bit in the second half. Pau (Gasol) as well. We saw him on the perimeter way too much. We can’t do that. We have to stick to our ground and pound game.”
McGee said the young Nuggets are getting the feel of playoff basketball.
”And we’re in Denver, we’re high altitude and we’re playing at a high level,” he said. ”So, it’s just a great feeling.”
Notes: Brown said he expects F Metta World Peace to be rested, not rusty when his suspension is over: ”He’s working hard. He’s engaged. I think he’ll be fine. Obviously, you never know, but he’s working his tail off and he is engaged and that’s all you can ask for during this period.” … The Lakers have only squandered one 2-0 series lead, losing to the Phoenix Suns in 1993. … Denver’s seven turnovers were one shy of their all-time playoff low.