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Nuggets’ message goes right to heart of matter for Lakers

A playground move. A powerful message.

Standing out of bounds under his basket in the final seconds of the second quarter Thursday, Chauncey Billups did the one thing every basketball bully dreams of doing.

He threw the ball off somebody’s back, caught it, and scored on a layup.

But it wasn’t just somebody’s back, it was Kobe Bryant’s back.

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And it wasn’t just any basket, it pulled the Denver Nuggets to within a point at halftime.

And, today, this isn’t just any bully, this is a Nuggets team that has backed it up with brass and ballast, a team that silenced a howling Staples Center crowd and has scared the life into a series.

“We ain’t going nowhere,” crowed the Nuggets’ J.R. Smith.

Neither should anyone else after the Nuggets’ shirt-drenching 106-103 victory over the Lakers that tied the Western Conference finals at one game apiece.

This is a series now, folks. This is a face-reddening, voice-changing, body-contorting-in-front-of-your-TV series.

Bodies are flying, illusions are shattering, reputations are changing, Bryant is biting his jersey as if it’s chewing gum and Carmelo Anthony is screaming as if its Halloween.

The first game ended with a stolen pass, then this game ended in a stolen jump ball, stolen free throws, stolen momentum, and one final stolen three-point attempt that sailed into nowhere.

The winning Nuggets picked themselves off the floor and wearily limped back into a crowded locker room, their star Anthony shouting for space and separating the masses before sitting in front of his locker with two iced legs in a tub of cold water.

“What, you take all the shots, and now you want all the locker room?” howled Smith.

The losing Lakers jumped off the floor and sprinted away, eager to leave the scene of the crime, their quotes a bit more ominous, such as this one from Pau Gasol, who watched the Nuggets finish the game in the paint and in his face.

“I’m playing as hard as I can,” he said.

You know what? That ain’t going to be enough because, as Smith said, the Nuggets ain’t going nowhere.

“They’re in a fight now,” said the Nuggets’ Kenyon Martin.

You’re watching, right?

If you want to see the Lakers find the strength to win an NBA championship, you should be watching.

If you want to see the Lakers lose their minds and knock their knees and never make it to the Finals, you should also be watching.

At this point, it could go either way. At this point, anything can be believed, because the nutty Denver Nuggets just pulled out a victory in a way that is stranger to their history than sanity.

Suddenly, with the series headed back to Denver’s Pepsi Center where the rejuvenated Nuggets are unbeaten in the postseason, all sorts of beliefs are being questioned.

Remember the Lakers’ plans to go to Cleveland for the Finals, a Cleveland team that lost its conference championship opener to Orlando?

“It ain’t just going to be us and Orlando lay down so they can play in two weeks,” Martin said. “That ain’t going to happen. I’m going to make sure it don’t. Y'all can go home and play NBA Live or something if y'all want to see that matchup.”

The Game 2 ending, like the Game 1 ending, was far stranger than video, only this time it was the Lakers who were pounded into the court.

About two minutes left, score tied at 99 after a dagger three-pointer by Bryant, one Lakers stop and the momentum changes, and what happens?

Billups gets into the lane and is pushed down by Gasol, resulting in two free throws.

“We just got tougher, where we should have done that in Game 1,” Billups said.

Forty-five seconds left, score tied at 101 on a fall-away jumper by Bryant, one Lakers stop and the game could be theirs, and what happens?

Billups drives to the basket, passes it back to Nene, who passes it back into Martin, who lays it in for another lead.

“Lot of so-called experts think we would fold,” said Martin afterward, looking around at his teammates’ crowded lockers. “But nobody in this room believes that.”

On the next Lakers’ possession, Bryant lost the ball, it ended up being a jump ball, Gasol outleaped Billups, Trevor Ariza grabbed it but lost it.

Two more Billups free throws gave the Nuggets a four-point lead, which was whittled to three points in the final seconds, which is Kobe Bryant territory.

Except he couldn’t escape the clutches of Anthony, so it was left for Fisher to miss his eighth shot in nine attempts, an airball three-pointer that ended it. “We’ve seen Derek knock those shots down how many times?” said Bryant. “So I can live with that.”

But there are things the Lakers cannot live with.

They cannot live with a defense that allowed Billups to penetrate such that he shot 16 free throws, which led to 27 points overall.

They cannot live with big men who cannot make the big plays on the likes of Nene, who scored just six points but had nine rebounds and six assists.

In all, the Lakers cannot live with the Nuggets believing that they’ve suddenly become, well, the Lakers.

That is what happened Thursday night, when roles reversed and attitudes changed and suddenly, it seems that in this flat deadlocked series, the Denver Nuggets are actually leading.

A playground mentality. A powerful victory.

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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