Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
DENVER – The Denver Nuggets have crept back into their series with the Los Angeles Lakers by outrunning and outgunning their older opponents.
The Nuggets will try to run them ragged again Thursday night in Game 6 back in Denver, where the mile-high altitude can be a big fatigue factor for a team long in the tooth like the star-studded Lakers.
It worked great at sea level Tuesday night with elder statesman Andre Miller feeding raw 7-foot center JaVale McGee, whose athleticism and mind-boggling array of dunks made L.A.’s two 7-footers look like they were moving in slow motion.
And Denver coach George Karl is counting on the altitude helping the Nuggets contain Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to force a Game 7 back in Los Angeles. He said there’s wear and tear at 5,280 feet even if visitors downplay it or even deny it.
“My hope, I don’t know if this is true or not, is that fatigue will come our way,” Karl said. “The running of the game, the tempo of the game, and the pace, the way we play. They’re getting tired of hearing it, and you’re probably tired of hearing it, but our only chance to beat them is run them and play with tremendous energy and intensity. Maybe somewhere along the way, we’ll make some 3s.”
The Nuggets avoided elimination with a 102-99 win in Game 5 thanks to McGee, who had 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Miller, who scored 24 points and dished out eight assists before making his biggest contribution: guarding Bryant on the Lakers’ final, futile possession.
McGee repeatedly sped past the slower Lakers for breakaway buckets, and even when he wasn’t beating them to the hoop, he was muscling his way around the paint for his usual repertoire of jaw-dropping baskets, then sprinting back downcourt to help rookie sparkplug Kenneth Faried put a big roadblock in the Lakers’ path.
“JaVale’s a huge target, and he’s athletic,” Arron Afflalo said. “As we all know, Andre likes to throw those high-lob passes and backdoor passes. It makes for a good combination.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a guy like this,” Karl said. “He has the moves of a 6-6 player. The guy reminds me a little bit of Connie Hawkins with his long, unfolding one-handed stuff. But he has a long way to go to become Connie Hawkins.”
He’s off to a good start in making a name for himself with his underrated post game, undoubtedly boosting his value in free agency this summer.
“Usually, I’m nowhere near the playoffs,” said McGee, who spent his first 3½ seasons with the Washington Wizards before coming to Denver in the Nenê deadline deal. “My last game of the year is usually at the end of the regular season in April.”
May suits him very well, as does Denver’s up-tempo style.
“He attacked off the glass,” Bynum said. “That is what was causing me problems, personally. Other than that, he gets balls in transition. We’ve got to get back.”
Gasol said the Lakers were frustrated because “we didn’t bring the energy that was required to put this team away, and they did. They played more desperate than we did and with more energy.”
So instead of preparing to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference semifinals, the Lakers have to make another trip to Denver to try to put away these speedy, scrappy Nuggets.
Fueling the Nuggets’ jetpacks Tuesday night was Bynum’s comment about how closeout playoff games can sometimes be easy. He made no such declarations heading into this next elimination game.
“We need some more things to put on the bulletin board,” Ty Lawson said. “That definitely helped us out. We’ll probably just put that up again and pretend we never heard it before.”
Neither team practiced Wednesday. The Nuggets stayed overnight in Southern California rather than hopping a red-eye home.
“We didn’t want to take that trip where you went to bed at 4 o’clock in the morning and you wake up and feel awful for a day,” Karl said.
Karl also wanted his players to get over their happiness rather quickly and start focusing on Game 6, something the Lakers and their fans weren’t expecting.
“I’ve been in this position before,” Bryant said. “I know a lot of guys on the team haven’t been in this position before, so it’s important to remind them, ‘Yeah, this (stinks), but it’s not the end of the world.’”
So the Nuggets have momentum on their side, and they’ve got the deeper roster with fresher, younger legs. The Lakers have experience and talent, rings and All-Star résumés.
Who will feel the heat?
“I think the pressure’s on them now,” Lawson said.
Not so fast, Karl suggested.
“We’ve got to beat a championship-caliber team with three All-Stars. Our pressure is the same,” Karl said. “The momentum of the series and the pendulum is kind of tilted to us a little bit, but I always believe ... the team that’s down 3-2 is the one that still feels the pressure.”
He’s just hoping it’s the Lakers who are breathing hard again Thursday night.
AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham contributed from Los Angeles.