LOS ANGELES – Similar game, different ending for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Their 24-year playoff dominance of the Denver Nuggets dissipated over the final 29 seconds of the fourth quarter in the second down-to-the-wire game in the Western Conference finals. That’s when Kenyon Martin hit a layup in traffic and Chauncey Billups made 3 of 4 free throws to give Denver a 106-103 victory in Game 2 on Thursday night to even the series.
“It’s going to be a long series,” Nuggets coach George Karl said.
It was Denver’s first playoff win against Los Angeles since 1985, a span of 11 games, the second-longest post-season winning streak against one team in NBA history.
“There was just a demand that we had to win this game,” Karl said. “There was an inner spirit. We’re a much more smart, mentally tough team than you look at last year and what we are now. It’s a great win.”
Carmelo Anthony scored 34 points, Billups had 27 points and Linas Kleiza added 16 for the Nuggets. Nene finished with six points, nine rebounds and six assists.
“To get one on the road is always tough. We came in and got it,” Anthony said. “We’re mentally tough and we showed that in this game coming off the loss that we gave away in Game 1.”
Anthony twisted his ankle in the game, but he said he would be fine for Game 3 Saturday in Denver.
Kobe Bryant had 32 points, including making all 10 of his free throws, Trevor Ariza scored a career playoff-high 20 points and Pau Gasol had 17 points and 17 rebounds for the Lakers, who dropped to 7-2 at Staples Center this post-season.
“They have home court advantage now. Now it’s time to go to Denver, see if we can do the same,” Bryant said. “We’re not the best road team in the NBA for no reason.”
The Nuggets recovered from poor free throw shooting in a two-point loss in Game 1 to make 17 consecutive foul shots until Billups missed one with 4 seconds remaining. He made the second for the three-point lead.
“I want to kill Chauncey for missing that free throw,” Karl said.
Derek Fisher launched a three-pointer from the right corner that Nene got a piece of as time expired.
“Nene had a great contest,” Billups said. “I don’t think Fisher got a good chance to get a good look on the shot. Nonetheless, I was down there trying to rebound and trying to get my hands on the ball again, try to get back on that free throw line.”
Fisher thought he did get a good look.
“I figured they were going to try to foul to prevent us from shooting a 3,” he said. “I got rid of it a little quicker than I probably had to. Definitely don’t want to put yourself in a position where you need that kind of shot to try and tie the game.”
Tied at 101, Martin made the layup off Nene’s assist that gave the Nuggets the lead for good.
Bryant dribbled upcourt and got into traffic, with Nene tipping the ball away to earn a jump ball with 18 seconds left. Gasol controlled the tip to Ariza, but the ball squirted away and Fisher fouled Billups. He made both for a 105-101 lead.
“Looked to me like Anthony pushed on Trevor and Trevor tried to get rid of the ball, and no foul was called and they recovered the basketball,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Martin then fouled Gasol, who made both before Billups got fouled.
The Lakers were shaky on free throws in the fourth, making 9 of 14, while Denver didn’t blink at the line. The Nuggets were 29 of 37, with Billups hitting 13 of 16 and Anthony 10 of 14.
Kleiza’s three-pointer early in the fourth quarter gave the Nuggets an 85-82 lead, their first since the game’s opening minutes. Billups followed with two free throws and Anthony hit two straight baskets to extend Denver’s lead to 91-84.
Bryant missed a jumper, but he came up big on the Lakers’ next possession, hitting a three-pointer with Anthony’s hand in his face. Shannon Brown tossed in a three and Lamar Odom made two free throws as part of an 11-2 run that put the Lakers back in front 95-93.
Denver regained the lead before Bryant’s three-pointer, again with Anthony guarding closely, tied the game at 99 with 1:59 remaining. Billups made two free throws before Bryant’s jumper tied it at 101.
The Lakers led by 14 early in the second quarter. Anthony began a run of 14 consecutive points for the Nuggets to get them to 51-40. They outscored the Lakers 14-2 to get within 55-54 at halftime.
Notes: Anthony became the first Denver player to score at least 30 points in five consecutive playoff games since 1976. He had 39 in Game 1. … Faces in the crowd included Tom Cruise and his “Top Gun” co-star Val Kilmer, Will Ferrell, Denzel Washington, Jack Nicholson, Adam Levine and Maria Shriver.