DENVER — At times, Laker forward A.C. Green drove the lane as fast and reckless as a New York cab driver. He was drawn to missed shots like a heat-seeking missile. Defensively, he did not let his man free.
On top of all that, his outside shooting simply left Denver Nugget players shaking their heads.
Green was everywhere, and was the biggest of several reasons why the Lakers pulled out a 116-109 victory Sunday evening over the Nuggets to further distance themselves from the Detroit Pistons in the race for the NBA's best record.
Starting at center because of Mychal Thompson's hyper-extended right knee, Green responded with 26 points, a career-high 18 rebounds and had a hand in repelling Nugget comeback attempts in the final minutes. Green's turnaround 17-foot jump shot with 57 seconds to play, heaved just to avoid a 24-second clock violation, put Nugget hopes to rest for good.
The Lakers' sixth straight victory might have ended the Pistons' hope of finishing with the league's best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Lakers (57-17), who have eight games to left, lead the Pistons (54-21) by four games in the loss column.
Had it not been for Green, as well as strong bench play, the Lakers might not be in quite so good a position entering the regular season's final two weeks.
That Green was a force against the Nuggets is not surprising. Denver's philosophy is to trap and double team Magic Johnson and James Worthy and, well, everybody except Green. And, just as he did in Denver two months ago, Green had a big night.
Left free to roam the perimeter, wander the key and crash the boards, Green scored four baskets inside of five feet, made three perimeter jump shots, and even sank a baseline hook and had an above-the-rim tip-in.
Green was not alone in turning back the Nuggets, now only a half game ahead of Seattle for the eighth and final playoff spot. Worthy scored 21 of his 29 points in the first half and finished with nine assists. Johnson had 19 points and 11 rebounds. Vlade Divac, playing 26 minutes because of Thompson's absence, had 14 points and six rebounds. And Michael Cooper, starting at forward, limited Alex English to seven points.
But when the Nuggets had to select a Laker to ignore, it was Green. And, they paid for it.
"There are still people in this league who think A.C. can't shoot outside," Riley said. "A.C. is an effort player, and you have to have effort players when you play Denver. Their passing game and their trapping defense leaves a lot of open seams and lanes for A.C. to go. No one blocks him out and A.C. always makes the effort to get there."
Green says he does not play any differently against the Nuggets than any other team. He insisted he does not especially look forward to playing against the Nuggets.
"Maybe it's just the way they defend us," Green said. "We're a team blessed with such talent that they can't play everyone one-on-one. They got to leave somebody open."
Green said he did not feel particularly potent offensively. He said his jump shot felt a little awkward and said he was affected early by the high altitude.
"I just kept trying to get a hand on the ball," Green said. "I tried to give the best effort I could."
The same could be said for Green's teammates. While the Pistons are slumping without guard Joe Dumars, the Lakers overcame the loss of Thompson.
"It was a real great game for us," Riley said. "We went dead in the water for about three or four minutes in the third quarter. But we played 44 minutes of great basketball."
Against the Nuggets, that proved enough. But Riley admitted to being a tad concerned during the Lakers' lone lull, which hit in the final 3:40 of the third quarter.
The Nuggets hit stride with a 16-4 run, as the Laker offense unaccountably segued into disarray. The Lakers had four turnovers, missed two easy shots and Byron Scott did not even draw iron on a three-point attempt. Their lone basket came on a Worthy jumper with 1:52 to play.
So, an 83-74 lead turned into a 90-85 deficit entering the fourth quarter.
Green and Johnson, who sat out most of the third-quarter drought, returned at the start of the fourth quarter. So, too, did the Lakers' composure. It took then slightly less than four minutes to regain the lead and, every time the Nuggets threatened, the Lakers responded with big baskets.
Green scored eight of the Lakers' last 12 points and, consequently, Denver could get no closer than seven points.
One of Green's most impressive efforts came with 3:40 to play. Orlando Woolridge missed a shot, then Magic Johnson missed a three-point shot, then Woolridge missed another follow attempt. Green found position underneath and tipped in Woolridge's second miss. Green later sank four free throws, leading to his turnaround jumper that put the Nuggets to rest.