Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl reacts after the Lakers win Game 7 of the… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The unraveling of the Lakers over the season's first few weeks was so complete that not even purple-and-gold pugilist George Karl could enjoy it.
The Denver Nuggets coach, you may recall, made his feelings for the team that has repeatedly knocked him out of the playoffs plainly known in October.
“I just despise the Lakers,” Karl said at the time. “I've been beaten by them so many times.”
Karl's disdain prompted him to send a text message to Mitch Kupchak after the Lakers acquired Steve Nash over the summer suggesting that the general manager and fellow former North Carolina Tar Heel had uncanny good luck.
Then came a run of Lakers misfortune that no one could have foreseen. It included the dreaded Princeton offense, four losses in five games and the firing of Coach Mike Brown.
Karl didn't sound so hateful Friday night before the Nuggets' 122-103 loss at Staples Center lifted the Lakers back to .500. Given what he had said about the Lakers recently, didn't part of him enjoy their early-season struggles?
“I don't see that,” Karl said. “I know the negative is they've lost home games. I know that. I've studied their last three games; I haven't studied their whole season.”
Here's the Cliffs Notes version: Nash was lost with a small fracture in his leg in the season's second game, Pau Gasol all but disappeared despite not missing a game and the Lakers had largely looked stuck in slow motion trying to run new Coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense before their 71-point first half Friday.
The Lakers had plenty of verve in the early going. Dwight Howard dunked his way to 16 points in the first quarter on seven-for-nine shooting before suffering a cut on his left eyelid. Jodie Meeks, glued to the bench during Brown's tenure, was unleashed in the second quarter and responded with five three-pointers in a span of 3 minutes 47 seconds.
“When you're shooting like that, you just feel like every shot you throw up you're going to hit,” said Meeks, who made seven of eight three-pointers overall and finished with 21 points. “It's a great feeling to have and hopefully it continues.”
It looked, well, easy.
So did a play in the third quarter when Gasol lofted a one-handed alley-oop pass to Howard for a one-handed dunk. Antawn Jamison had team highs in shots taken (19) and made (13) on the way to a season-high 33 points as part of a 61-point explosion by a bench that matched the output of the starters.
“That's what we need,” Jamison said. “Especially guys coming off this bench. We need to set a tone and set an identity of what we're going to do on both ends of the floor. If we continue to do that and go into the direction that we're going now, it's going to be difficult [to stop].”
Howard put three exclamation points on the triumph by making a 24-foot jumper from the corner in the final seconds, smiling all the way back down the court.
Of course, the Lakers experienced similar good vibes during a 26-point victory over Dallas only to revert to bad habits during a home loss Tuesday against Indiana.
“It was probably the same press conference after Dallas and then we went backward,” D'Antoni said, “and we can't do that anymore.”
The Nuggets can partially blame themselves for Howard being a Laker. They were participants in the four-team trade that brought the All-Star center to L.A., as they acquired Andre Iguodala as part of the deal. Karl said the move was made with only Denver in mind, not the Lakers, because his young team has some growing up to do before it can compete with the heavyweights of the Western Conference.
The Lakers also didn't appear anywhere close to challenging the NBA's top teams over the season's first few weeks. If Friday night is any indication, maybe they really can keep up with Miami and Oklahoma City.
And earn Karl's loathing again in the process.