Denver Coach George Karl, center, talks to his players during their Game… (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images )
DENVER — Eighteen years later, the image still torments George Karl.
Dikembe Mutombo is lying on the floor underneath the basket at Seattle's Key Arena, his outstretched arms holding the ball above his head in triumph.
Mutombo's Denver Nuggets had just come back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Karl's SuperSonics in the deciding game of their best-of-five series, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to defeat a top-seeded opponent in the first round.
"It was probably the worst day of my life," Karl, now coach of the Nuggets, said Friday. "I mean, I can't remember, other than my dad dying maybe."
As Mutombo left the court that day in May 1994, a disbelieving smile never leaving his face, a 24-year-old video coordinator walked over to embrace him.
His name? Mike Brown.
Karl is hoping for a karmic reversal Saturday at Staples Center. His sixth-seeded Nuggets will face Brown's third-seeded Lakers in the deciding Game 7 of a first-round series that few even in Denver gave their hometown team a chance of winning.
The Nuggets have undergone a complete overhaul in the last 15 months, with only three key players — Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington — left from the roster that predated the Carmelo Anthony trade in February 2011.
A victory over the Lakers would allow Denver to become only the ninth team in NBA history to win a series after facing a 3-1 deficit. It would also be a sign that a team whose starters average 24 years old is quickly coming of age.
Of course, the Nuggets have to get there first.
And standing in their way is the ultimate wild card in a series full of them: Metta World Peace.
The Lakers small forward will be playing in his first game since he elbowed Oklahoma City's James Harden in the head late last month, earning a seven-game suspension.
That apparently was one game too few for Karl's liking.
"Why didn't they not give [him] out the first round? Why seven [games]?" Karl asked. "Why is that the magic number? … If I was you guys, there would be a lot of symbolism you could be writing about, him being the wild card and maybe the savior of a team and should he have that right, to be honest with you?"
Karl said he expected World Peace, who had averaged 14.1 points in April before his suspension, to start and be part of a renewed effort by the Lakers "to power us and bully us and pound us and beat us up in the paint."
Denver can counter with its own tough guy in rookie forward Kenneth Faried, who has withstood numerous body blows in this series. After Lakers guard Kobe Bryant clobbered Faried on a fastbreak early in the third quarter of Game 6, drawing a flagrant foul, the Nuggets scored the next six points to open an 18-point lead on the way to a 113-96 victory.
"We're seeing that kid stand up to all their cheap shots and Kenneth Faried just gets right back up and stands up and keeps getting stronger and stronger," Karl said. "You can see it just make Timo [Mozgov] and JaVale [McGee] and even the veteran guys, they want to fight with him."
Karl said he is eager to stand with his players Saturday on his 61st birthday. It could be a moment that matches the Nuggets' playoff upset of Seattle in 1994. And it just might help Karl get over a particularly painful memory.
"Probably as powerful or, for me, more powerful," Karl said of the potential impact of a victory. "Maybe it's my ability to [get] closure on that, Mutombo lying on the ground."