Commentary

Lakers silence Denver as rivalry grows

Updated: March 1, 2010, 1:35 AM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol had heard enough.

Too much chirping from the Birdman. Too much nonsense from Nene. Too much mouthing off from Melo. Too many comments from Kenyon.

And so he did something about it, ramping up his aggression to grab a game-high 14 rebounds, which helped erase a nine-point first-half deficit in the Lakers' 95-89 win against the Nuggets on Sunday.

"They talk too much," the normally reserved Gasol said after the game. "Way too much. I don't listen to things that don't make sense. I'm a player that likes to play and that's how I talk, by me playing. Other players can't do that."

The Lakers, the group whom Kobe Bryant pointedly questioned for their collective hunger after their second loss to Cleveland last month, were sleepwalking through another lackluster game when the Nuggets rattled them out of the complacency they had been mired in since training camp.

The Lakers have an enemy and its name is the Nuggets, who were 2-0 against L.A. entering Sunday's clash. Lakers fans should praise the sky above the Rocky Mountains that Denver auditioned for the part.

"I love that we don't like the team in particular," Gasol said. "I wish we didn't like any teams for that matter."

The distaste gave L.A. a focus it was missing. It made the Lakers' actions meaningful. Bryant operated in the post in the second half to overcome a dreadful 3-for-17 shooting night by dishing out nearly as many assists by himself (12) as Denver did as a team (15). Ron Artest scored 17 points, had six steals and held Carmelo Anthony to a frustrating 7-for-19 shooting night that included eight turnovers and a foul out. Lamar Odom took advantage of Bryant's spacing to get in position for open jump shots and finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and four steals.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said all the talking by the Nuggets was the typical Charmin harassment -- "they're too soft" -- the Lakers usually receive, but this time it struck a chord with his team.

"Retaliation is something that gets you in trouble," Jackson said. "But, there is a point in which you have to hold your ground, and this was a point we had to make tonight."

They made it all right, outscoring Denver by 24 in the paint, controlling the battle of the boards (47 to 43), snagging 16 steals (including seven in the third quarter, when L.A. made its push) and holding the Nuggets -- the NBA's sixth most accurate team from the field at 47.2 percent -- to just 35.9 percent shooting Sunday.

"It was nice to be out there fighting," Gasol said. "It was something that we all enjoyed and it was something that we did a lot more last season than we had been doing this season. It's something that we will need to go forward."

Chauncey Billups, who ripped L.A. for 39 points the last time these teams played, was held to 17 on a modest 4-for-12 shooting. Even so, Denver's braggadocio Mr. Big Shot said after the game, "I feel like we're right there on the same level as that team."

Even though the Lakers are the defending champs, they almost had to mimic the Nuggets' confidence … no, swagger … no, cockiness … to get back to playing at the level they're capable of playing.

There was a sense of urgency running through them on Sunday.

We saw it when Anthony fouled out on a charge drawn by Artest, who reiterated the referee's offensive foul signal like an overzealous baseball umpire calling Strike 3.

And we saw it when Bryant picked up his 11th technical foul of the season after J.R. Smith stripped him in the first half. If the Nuggets willingly auditioned to be the Lakers' rivals as a whole, Smith thrust himself into the role of Bryant's personal enemy earlier this week when he tweeted, "Dont get me wrong kobe is great but not when he play me."

Bryant downplayed it after the game, calling Smith one of his "young boys" but added in a "look at the track record" jab in his typical "I've got bigger fish to fry" fashion.

Whether Smith motivated Bryant or not, the game changed for the Lakers when Bryant started taking Smith and Arron Afflalo into the post, bodying them so close to the hoop the help defense had to commit, and then finding an open teammate.

"It was nice to be in somewhat of a pressure cooker," Bryant said.

Said Odom: "I think it's big for our confidence as a team and we needed to put that pressure on them just to kind of let them know we can beat them."

Jackson was asked if he was responsible for turning the tide of the game with any rah-rah activity at halftime.

"I didn't instill anything," Jackson said. "They had that in them already."

He didn't instill it, but Denver extracted it.

All the Lakers needed was an enemy.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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