FROM DENVER — Trevor Ariza is walking like an old man. Lamar Odom is jumping like an old mannequin.
Kobe Bryant's legs are wobbling. Pau Gasol's face is drooping.
On a Monday when thousands of exhausted runners completed a race in Los Angeles, a dozen equally depleted Angelenos collapsed in their own marathon here at the Pepsi Center.
Only, the Lakers are still as many as three games from this finish line.
And, judging from their painful staggering and awkward stumbling, one must wonder whether they can make it.
Even on the night when Denver's best player made all of three baskets, the Nuggets ran circles around the Lakers -- and the dark circles under their eyes -- in a 120-101 victory to equal the Western Conference finals at two games apiece.
On one end, the Nuggets' J.R. Smith was pounding his chest, cursing into the sky, and dancing in front of the Lakers' bench.
On the other end, Ariza was requiring about an hour just to walk off the court.
In one moment, the Nuggets' Chris "Birdman" Andersen was inspiring the crowd to flap their arms as he leaped through Lakers statues for 14 rebounds.
In the next moment, that crowd was raining down an obscene chant upon the cold-shooting Bryant, who could only grab his shorts, catch his breath, and shake his head.
"They just kicked our butt," said Bryant, who was 10 for 26. "They whupped us, period."
The Lakers seemed to try, and appeared to care, so this was not like the two postseason collapses at Houston.
But this was directly connected to the two collapses in Houston.
This is why it mattered that the Lakers mailed it in twice to a Rockets team they should have finished off much earlier.
This is why, no matter what how flippantly the Lakers and Coach Phil Jackson acted about those losses, they might loom even larger later.
By needlessly extending that series, the Lakers are now gassed in this series, having played 11 playoff games in the last 22 days. During that same stretch, the Nuggets have played eight games.
This was also the Lakers' 16th playoff game overall, which is already one more than the number of playoff games they required to reached last year's NBA Finals.
"If we were tired, it was noticeable tonight because their energy was better," Jackson said of the Nuggets. "That's perhaps the only thing I could say. But that's not a very good excuse."
They are more than tired, they are hurt, nothing major, but enough nicks that they couldn't capitalize on Carmelo Anthony's stomach flu, sprained ankle and three total baskets.
Odom, still aching from the back injury suffered against Houston, made one of eight shots with three turnovers.
Ariza, hurting in the hip and groin, made one of four shots with one rebound.
Bryant, who was so wiped out after Game 3 here that he was literally doubled over during an on-court postgame interview, made only two of 10 three-point attempts as his legs just couldn't give him consistent lift..
When I asked Bryant if his teammates were tired, he said, "Probably. Probably."
In case anyone was wondering, he said it was more about attitude than altitude.
"'I think with a young team, when you have a 2-1 series lead, it's kind of the attitude where . . . every play is not as important, you know what I mean?" he said.
Yes, Lakers fans know exactly what he means.
"When you're tired, you say, OK, I don't have to get that ball or I don't have to get on the floor for this loose ball," he said.
This weariness, or wariness, led to an inexcusable 58-40 Nuggets edge in rebounds and 18 more Nuggets points in the paint.
Fatigue also leads to fouls, and as much as Lakers fans will want to complain about the officiating, with the Lakers whistled for eight more hacks, many times the Lakers grabbed the Nuggets because they were just too tired to stay in front of them.
This doesn't count, of course, the most flagrant foul of the night, the one that wasn't called, when Dahntay Jones purposely tripped Bryant and sent him skidding across the lane.
Bryant hollered, but nobody listened. Jones shrugged, but none of Bryant's teammates retaliated.
At that point in the middle of the third quarter, the Lakers trailed by nine. It was perhaps no coincidence that the Nuggets outscored them by 10 the rest of the way.
Denver knew that the Lakers had no fight left.
"No," said Bryant wryly when asked if he was tripped. "I just fell on my face for no reason. I'm a klutz."
When searching for energy and health in Game 5 at Staples Center on Wednesday, the Lakers need to remember that play, as well as the Smith showboating.
"I would be upset if someone was out there tearing up and showboating," said Smith.
"At the same time, that's how the Denver Nuggets play."
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