Lakers forward Metta World Peace pulls in a rebound against Nuggets forward… (Chris Carlson / Associated…)
The lights dimmed down. The starters walked through player introductions. And then moments after the lights turned back on, the Lakers and Nuggets tipped off in what appeared to be an ordinary NBA game. There was one key difference, though. The Lakers didn't have their head coach patrolling the sideline.
Mike Brown left before the start of the Lakers' 103-97 victory over Denver on Friday night for what the team called "personal reasons." But his players hardly had much time to react to his sudden departure.
"It happened so fast," Lakers forward Metta World Peace said. "We couldn't even focus on it. We had a game to play. It happened right when we were going out there."
Good thing the Lakers has apparently developed a backup plan. Assistant coach John Kuester had already taken over head-coaching duties once this season. Brown missed the Lakers' 95-90 loss Feb. 6 at Philadelphia because of a one-game suspension stemming from his ejection two days earlier against Utah.
Brown attended Friday's mandatory pregame interview with reporters about 10 minutes late, but offered no outward sign in his answers he wouldn't coach. But the approach remained the same. While Brown often paces the sideline and Kuester prefers to sit in his chair, the player rotations agianst the Nuggets were the same rotations that Brown has favored in recent weeks.
"Mike has instituted a system that he knows can be executed with him there or without him there," Kuester said. "He has a staff that believes in everything he does."
That staff currently includes Kobe Bryant, who missed his fourth consecutive game because of a sore left shin. Kuester described Bryant as the Lakers' "fifth assistant" and a "calming influence." As he sat between assistants Darvin Ham and Quin Snyder, Bryant often shared instructions with his teammates.
The Lakers answered whether the circumstances fazed them with their performance. They absorbed Denver chipping away at double-digit leads. Andrew Bynum fought through enough double teams to score 30 points. Matt Barnes' 24 points came off timely shots, including a 16-foot turnaround jumper before halftime as well as a three-pointer and floating jumper that gave the Lakers a 97-90 lead with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter.
The Times' Mike Bresnahan reported Brown is expected to coach Sunday against the Dallas Mavericks. But for one game, the Lakers proved they could hold down the fort during his absence.
"We just know it's something personal with the family," Barnes said. "So we wish him the best and we tried to get the win for him."
Photos: Lakers vs. Nuggets
Coach and Andrew Bynum define their terms
Five things to take from the Lakers win over Nuggets
Lakers sympathetic toward Coach Mike Brown's absence