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Lost Highway

ON THE NBA

Putting aside their roadside distractions, the Nuggets are back in Denver to plot a new strategy. But none of their defensive choices seem very appealing against Bryant, Gasol and the multifaceted Lakers.

April 22, 2008|Mark Heisler

Happily, little fazes the Denver Nuggets, whose Smoking Bus incident en route to Staples Center wasn't even their worst roadside mishap in the last week.

They're still awaiting test results to see whether Carmelo Anthony was driving while intoxicated when he was stopped in Denver, although Lakers fans skipped that part and started chanting "D-U-I!" at Melo in Game 1.

(When Nuggets fans assail Kobe Bryant a lot louder than that in Denver, Lakers fans will think that's low-class. On the bright side, our sports make our ever-devolving political process look dignified. OK, boors, have a ball.)

Of course, the Nuggets had worse problems than Lakers fans, like the actual Lakers, who ran up 128 points to make up for their lackluster performance.

With two days off before Game 2, Coach George Karl took his team back to Denver, a wise move. Even if his merry band of revelers are overrated as gangstas, they could get in trouble on a religious retreat.

Now Karl just has the Lakers to worry about, which is quite enough.

Plan A was their Game 1 defense, loading up on Bryant and turning Pau Gasol into Wilt Chamberlain.

Got Plan B?

"Every playoff series kind of tells a story," Karl said after Sunday's game, "and tonight was the first chapter of that story. We will study the film.

"I think it's good that we have two days to put some pieces together."

Translated roughly, that was, "Help!"

With All-Star inside and outside threats, the Lakers pose a problem you don't see all the time.

The Showtime Lakers had it with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Magic Johnson.

The '80s Celtics had it with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

The 2000-2002 Lakers had it with Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant, who were so devastating, the ground seemed to tremble under them, on the court and off.

There's a classic way to handle these teams: Hope they're in the other playoff bracket.

Remember the win that kept Dallas at No. 7 in the West on the last night of the regular season, when Dirk Nowitzki came right out and said he was relieved at not having to play the Lakers?

Guess who did?

"I'm not going to deny we were rooting to play New Orleans," Karl said. "We wanted the more inexperienced team."

Not to mention the younger, smaller, thinner team that can't pass the ball around as the Lakers did Sunday, with Luke Walton being another superior passer on the court with Bryant, Gasol and Lamar Odom.

Not that this is the second coming of Shaq and Kobe by any stretch of the imagination.

For one thing, Gasol and Odom together might make one of Shaq's thighs.

On the other hand, Kobe has no issues with either of them.

This season started with Bryant . . . how to put this . . . still upset about a lot of things before he began to notice Andrew Bynum's rise.

With defenses tracking Bryant, any time he and Bynum ran a pick-and-roll, Bynum was on his way to the hoop to dunk.

Then after Bynum went out, Bryant got the deluxe model: Gasol, who can do anything, play in the low post, face up, roll to the basket, fade for the jump shot or find another teammate -- often Odom -- driving.

"The one thing I saw when Gasol got here," Karl said, "was Kobe lighting up like a light bulb 'cause he had a big guy he could throw all different ways to -- lobs, bounce passes, rolls, just throw the ball over so he can dunk it. . . .

"He [Bryant] went from Bynum, who was going into that great place, and now he's got a guy better than Bynum."

Of course, Lakers fans know how close this came to blowing up instead, even if they are repressing the memory.

Think of the heartbreak in Denver, where Karl followed Bryant's off-season, trade demand by trade demand, waiting for the demise that never came.

"I was hoping they would trade Kobe," Karl said. "Unfortunately, that karma probably got them Gasol because probably 28 other teams were hoping the same thing.

"It's probably our fault because the basketball gods said, 'OK.' "

With some organizations it just seems to go that way, even if everyone in them is still pinching themselves.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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