It’s a sick joke, but Lakers are forced into a Game 7

DENVER -- And now it comes down to two words, two desperate words, the two danged words the Lakers never thought they would have to utter while toying with these Rocky Mountain munchkins and misfits.

Game Seven.

The Lakers never dreamed it, but now they must live it, a worst-case scenario, a last-ditch situation, one game to save this misguided season against a Denver Nuggets team that should already be starting its summer.

Shame Seven.

The Lakers made the least of their second chance to close out this first-round playoff series Thursday night, dominated for a second consecutive game by the Nuggets, this beating a serious one, a 113-96 loss that was even worse than it sounded.

“There is no way I thought what happened tonight was going to happen,” said Nuggets Coach George Karl.

Who did? Who could? A screaming, towel-waving crowd at Pepsi Center began chanting, “Beat L.A.” moments after the national anthem and the Lakers never offered any argument. The Nuggets began the game on a 13-0 run, the Lakers missing their nine shots in a row to start, and it never got any prettier. Kobe Bryant showed up with stomach flu yet he was the only one who didn’t play ashen, queasy basketball.

And now they will decide this three-wins-apiece series with a Game 7 on Saturday night in front of a Staples Center crowd that has behaved almost as listlessly and entitled as their team.

Blame Seven.

It’s Andrew Bynum’s fault, he was horrible again, failing to match the energy of the Nuggets’ little big men, making only four baskets. It was Pau Gasol’s fault, he also inexplicably disappeared for a second game, making only one basket in 10 attempts with only three rebounds.

“The reality is, both of those guys have to play better for us to win,” said Coach Mike Brown somberly.

And, you know, it’s also starting to look like Brown’s fault. The new guy began his first Lakers postseason with two sparkling victories, the team looking poised for a deep run, then the Nuggets’ Karl made adjustments and Brown didn’t.

Karl figured out how to neutralize the Lakers strength. Brown has yet to figure out how to stop the Nuggets’ speed. Since those first two games, Karl’s team has shown up with energy and attitude, as if motivated by something larger than itself. Brown’s team, meanwhile, has seemingly lost its drive, as if Brown’s constant harping about Xs and O’s have diluted their heart and hustle.

You know what the worst part of this is? Bryant, fighting for a sixth championship, has rarely been more inspirational. There have been long stretches during the last four games in which it seems like he’s the only one on the court who cares.

And Bryant knows it, saying afterward that he spoke with both Gasol and Bynum about their failure to match his drive.

“We didn’t step up to meet their energy, we know that,” said Bryant. “I expect them to play in game seven with a sense of desparation and urgency that wasn’t there the last two games.”

After Bryant’s flagrant tomahawk foul on Kenneth Faried in the third quarter ? his frustation is finally boiling over -- the fans began chanting, “Kobe (bleeps), Kobe (bleeps).”

Funny, but right now, Kobe, who shot the Lakers back into Game 5 and tried to drag them through Game 6 with 31 points, is about the only one on this team who doesn’t (bleep).

Said Brown: “It has to matter to us. We have to want to get the job done.”

Said Bryant: “You have to emotionally put your back against the wall, trick yourself to feeling there is no other option but to perform, to battle. If you do that, your performance shines through.”

These Lakers clearly were imitating the Lakers of 2009, a team that lost by 15 points in Houston in Game 6 of the first round before wiping out the Rockets in Game 7 and eventually winning an NBA title.

But that team was deeper, more balanced, Phil Jackson was still motivated and Bryant was three years younger. This season the Lakers exist in an entirely different world, as I was reminded by a friend who sent me text Thursday as the Nuggets were running wild against a listless Laker team that was reluctant to even take a charging foul.

“Where have you gone, D-Fish?”

Funny he should ask. The one guy who could coax some locker-room fight, Derek Fisher, is now waiting in Oklahoma City for the winner of this round. I know Fisher didn’t play much defense in the end, but, last I looked, Ramon Sessions was being torched by Ty Lawson throughout this series, including for 32 points with six assists and zero turnovers on Thursday.

Make no mistake, the series winner here should still be the Lakers. Momentum from a blowout doesn’t really carry over in the NBA playoffs, and the Lakers will benefit from the return of Metta World Peace from his suspension. After Thursday’s loss, Bryant most clearly showed his disappointment in his teammates by expressing his longing for the maddening Metta.

“He’s the one guy I can rely on night in and night out, to compete and play with a sense of urgency, with no fear,” said Bryant. “I look forward to having that by my side again.”

You hear that, rest of a team that was outscored in the paint by the hustling Nuggets by 18 points? Hmmmm.

Also on their side in Game Seven will be history. In the Kobe Bryant era, the Lakers are 4-0 in series-deciding games at Staples Center, going 3-0 in Game Sevens while winning a deciding Game 5 against Sacramento in the first round in 2000. Also in the Bryant era, the Lakers are 20-0 in series that they have a two-games-to-none lead.

“I think we might be too young to understand all that,” said the Nuggets’ Karl. “I might keep it away from them.”

But it being a one-game season, anything can happen, a hamstring twinge or a bloody nose or a bad call can decide it. Statistically, Game 7 is the best place for a favored home team to be, but practically it is the worst place. And even if the Lakers win, they will stagger into Oklahoma City to face the mighty Thunder with bleary eyes and tired legs, this series draining them even in victory.

It was so bad Thursday, late in the game a fan stood up behind my press-row seat and shouted, “Hey Plaschke, go cover the Kings, you (bleep).” I wanted to turn around and tell him that some of The Times’ readers are starting to wonder the same thing, and I can’t blame them.

“Game Seven, L.A., let’s go!” said Lawson.

Game Seven, L.A., you’ve got to be kidding me.