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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Less-Melo Nuggets are more of a problem for Lakers

Denver is bigger, deeper, more balanced and, now, 15-4 since trading Carmelo Anthony. A 95-90 win at Staples Center shows L.A. just how much Nuggets have improved, while also derailing Lakers' bid to overtake first-place Spurs in West.

April 03, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Denver center Nene unloads a pass between the defense of Lakers forward Ron Artest and Pau Gasol during the game Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
Denver center Nene unloads a pass between the defense of Lakers forward… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Where was Melo when the Lakers needed him?

Hurtling down the stretch, with San Antonio's 8 1/2 -game lead at the All-Star break reduced to 1½, and one in the loss column. . . .

Never mind.

A funny thing happened on the Lakers' way to that big April 12 showdown with the Spurs here.

The Spurs won Sunday, ending their six-game losing streak.

The Lakers lost . . . at home . . . to the new, improved post-Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets, ending their nine-game winning streak.

The Spurs' lead is now back to 2½ games with their magic number down to four. Any combination of four San Antonio victories in its five remaining games, or Lakers losses in their six, and it's see you on the Riverwalk for Games 1-2-5-7.

That's if they meet in the Western finals, of course.

As Denver, now 15-4 since the Anthony trade, reminded the Lakers, there's no guarantee they or the Spurs will get the far.

Not that Melo wasn't a great defender, but, in an eye-opening statistic, they're giving up 95 points a game since he left —10 below the 105 they gave up with him.

Instead of being out-rebounded by one a game, they're out-rebounding opponents by 5.8.

The Nuggets team that took the Lakers to six games in the 2009 Western finals spotted them three inches a man across the front line.

Bolstered by 7-foot-1 Timofey Mozgov, 6-10 Danilo Gallinari and 6-8 Wilson Chandler, who's nimble enough to guard Kobe Bryant, these Nuggets are bigger, no less athletic and deeper than deep, with eight of them averaging double figures.

Oh, and as they showed Sunday, they're capable of playing at the Lakers' level, holding them to 90, as opposed to 112 and 107 in the first two meetings.

"We're not proving anything to anybody, but you hear all this talk, they haven't beaten anybody, this and that," said Raymond Felton, the fourth Knugget, as the former Knicks are known in New York with the present Knicks 10-12 since the trade.

"I thought we beat some good teams before, but we definitely beat a good team tonight."

Meet the game's best point tandem, with starter Ty Lawson and Felton having averaged 27 points and 15 assists in March.

Coach George Karl had them out there together in a three-guard lineup with J.R. Smith in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets swooped into the lead.

With the Lakers now 17-2 since the break, well, stuff happens.

As for the race . . . what race?

They haven't been following any race, the Lakers said, almost in unison.

"It just kind of happened," Derek Fisher said. "We didn't consciously decide, let's try to catch them [the Spurs]. We were just winning games and they were losing games.

"And today was the wrong combination. They won and we lost."

Of course, if everyone was tired of hearing about it, Bryant was fit to be tied, challenging the single-night eye-roll record he set Friday in Salt Lake City after the Lakers pulled to within 1½ games.

No, falling back to 2½ didn't cheer him up.

By the time Bryant left the trainer's room, there were fans at the game who had already driven home and were watching TV.

Nevertheless, a ring of media people waited in front of Bryant's cubicle, arranging themselves in a semicircle with a place for him inside it.

"Are you kidding me?" said Bryant, seeing us as he emerged from the trainer's room.

Asked the standard question about the race, Bryant faked apoplexy and laughed, or pretended to, saying nothing.

OK, we get it, you don't care.

It's worse than that. It's beneath your dignity to even acknowledge it as an issue.

Dallas owner Mark Cuban said the same thing last week, as the Lakers pulled away from his Mavericks.

Of course, if the Lakers could have caught the Spurs, Dallas and San Antonio would be looking at playing each other to get to them . . . instead of the Lakers and Mavericks looking at playing each other to get to the Spurs.

Whatever. That's in the exciting postseason time to come. This is just one-in-82 now.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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