Lakers never make it easy, but they escape Game 7

Whew. Gasp. Arrgh.

The Lakers pulled a city off a ledge and themselves back into the NBA championship contention Saturday with an energizing, exasperating 96-87 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of a first-round series that should not have lasted this long.

All together now: What were they thinking?

You want to hug them. You want to strangle them. You want to ask them, how much more of this madness do you expect us to watch?

Saturday night should not have been necessary. Saturday night wound up being nuts. It was a Lakers team swinging wildly, a Nuggets team swinging back, 10 bodies flying across a wooden floor for nearly three hours while a Staples Center crowd roared with a gusto reserved for gladiators.

“Our guys stood together,” Coach Mike Brown said. “Our guys fought and fought.”

The Lakers blew them out. Then they were blown out. Then they hung on, somehow, some way, finishing the night as if fighting to maintain the very greatness of the franchise, which they were.

In a game that was typical of a series, the Lakers muscled to a 16-point lead midway through the third quarter, then allowed the Nuggets to sprint back into an early fourth-quarter lead as a city’s jaws dropped and its hands were thrown into the air.

But when it counted, finally, the Lakers wore their desperation well. When it mattered, finally, the Lakers acted like a franchise that had won 10 consecutive Game 7s at home.

In the final furious minutes, with Steve Blake throwing in bombs and Pau Gasol soaring over the middle and Kobe Bryant exhaustedly clawing for everything, the Lakers were again the Lakers ? whatever the heck that is anymore. They outscored the Nuggets by 10 points in the final 10 minutes, leaving their younger opponents flat on their backs and rubbing their eyes.

“The way they were playing, I asked Kobe if he was making a statement to the Los Angeles Kings,” Brown said.

The only thing crazier about the Lakers effort was the name of the Laker hero. Yeah, you guessed it, let’s make some elbow room in this column for -- who else? -- Metta World Peace.

Face it, that he could return from a seven-game suspension in a decisive Game 7 wasn’t fair. George Karl, Nuggets coach, complained that Peace’s elbow to the head of Oklahoma City’s James Harden should have caused him to miss the entire first-round series, and he’s right.

But you know what? Commissioner David Stern probably cost the Lakers an NBA title before the season when he denied their trade for Chris Paul. Let’s just say he owed them one, and, while one game won’t compensate for a franchise’s future, this was one heckuva payback.

World Peace not only scored 15 points, but his constant warring with Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller -- they shot a combined two for 19 --- inspired the Lakers to duel the Nuggets at every level in seemingly ever minute.

“He was monstrous for us?monstrous,” Brown said in an exceedingly poor choice of words, given the memory of Peace whacking Harden, but you get the point.

World Peace nailed a three-pointer to start the fourth quarter. World Peace blocked a Miller shot midway through the fourth quarter. World Peace went flying into the courtside seats to epitomize the fourth quarter. And that was just the stuff we saw.

“He made plays tonight that won’t show up on the stat sheet,” said Brown. “He was absolutely freaking amazing.”

As usual in postgame interview situations, World Peace was absolutely freakishly calm.

“It’s hard to talk about me, it’s about what I can do to help the team,” he said with a soft smile. “But yeah, I guess I can provide a spark.”

Those sparks will be flying around World Peace when the Lakers fly to Oklahoma City to begin a Western Conference semifinal series Monday against Harden and the rested, running Thunder. As if the situation needed more heat, World Peace is already stoking the flames.

World Peace has yet to apologize to Harden for the hit, and said Saturday he wouldn’t even seek him out before the game to shake his hand. Starters often bump fists or hug before the tipoff, but because Harden doesn’t start, World Peace would need to make a special effort to find him, and he won’t.

“I don’t shake substitute’s hands,” he said.

What about finding him during warmups?

“I’ve never done that in my life,” he said.

The Thunder crowd is more like a rowdy college crowd than a typical NBA crowd, which means World Peace will be faced with some serious and open hostility, yet he said that doesn’t bother him either.

“It’s America, we have freedom of speech, they can say what they want,” he said.

The Lakers could be too out of breath to talk back. This series was tougher than it should have been, but the Thunder series will be exactly as tough as everyone imagines.

The Thunder will be heavily favored. The Lakers will be sorely tested. The Thunder is the Nuggets, only more athletic and talented. The Thunder is the Nuggets in beast mode.

How will Ramon Sessions handle Russell Westbrook if he couldn’t stay in front of Denver’s Ty Lawson? How will Bynum handle big men Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka when he struggled with the Nuggets’ much flimsier bigs?

The last time the two teams met in the postseason, two years ago, the Lakers clinched a first-round win in Oklahoma City with a last-second tip by Gasol in Game 6. But is this the same Gasol? He didn’t look like it against Denver until Saturday, when he amazingly had six offensive rebounds on one possession and wound up with 23 points and 17 rebounds.

And, oh yeah, in case the Lakers need somebody to bail them out with point-four seconds remaining, that guy, Derek Fisher, now plays for the Thunder.

Those are all worries for another day, even if that day will show up in a few hours. For now, Lakers fans can celebrate a scintillating survival. Maybe. I think.