DENVER >> So many signs suggested the Lakers’ climb would prove too steep.
The Rocky Mountain altitude. The long-term absences to Kobe Bryant (Achilles tendon) and Steve Nash (back). The Lakers’ sixth different lineup playing together for only two consecutive games.
But another recurring element best explains the Lakers’ 111-99 loss Wednesday to the Denver Nuggets and offers clarity to an otherwise inconsistent season. The Lakers (4-6) can’t win on the second night of back-to-back games. They have gone 0-3 so far, losing by an average of 17.7 points. A small sample size through the first two weeks of the regular season, for sure. But with the Lakers fielding 16 more of these scenarios throughout the next five months, they haven’t provided any assurances they’ll stop morphing from one team to another within a one-night span. It also doesn’t help that the Lakers arrived here at 3 a.m., mere hours after disposing of New Orleans at Staples Center.
“It’s starting to seem like that,” Lakers forward Jordan Hill said. “But it shouldn’t be a problem at all. It’s definitely a mental thing. You should go out there and have fun… If you want to win, you have to go out and play as a team and help each other out on the floor. We didn’t do it tonight.”
Hill tried, posting 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting and 15 rebounds in his second start at power forward. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni described Hill’s performance as “good” and suggested he’ll keep that spot assuming he maintains the same level of energy.
That didn’t translate toward the rest of his teammates, though.
The Lakers’ frontline of Hill, Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman allowed Nuggets forward Timofey Mozgov to tie his career-high totals in points (23 on 8-of-12 shooting) and blocks (12), while Kenneth Faried chipped in with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Meanwhile, the Nuggets outmuscled the Lakers in second-chance points (60-32) and rebounds (58-51). Though Denver only shot 40 percent from the field, the Nuggets compensated by attacking the basket and going 25 of 37 from the foul line.
“We have to make sure our effort and energy is up there at all times,” said Gasol. “Then we’ll be in a better position.”
The Lakers weren’t.
Gasol posted 25 points albeit on 12-of-27 shooting, marking the fifth time in the previous six games he’s shot below 50 percent. Steve Blake (15 points) and Wesley Johnson (10 points) complemented Gasol. But after leading the league with a combined 52 points per game, the Lakers’ reserves only accounted for 28 points.
Still, Nick Young’s three-pointer and subsequent free throw on a four-point play as well as a pair of Johnson foul shots cut the Nuggets’ lead to 83-79 heading into the fourth quarter. But the Lakers missed four consecutive jumpers en route to a 6-of-24 clip in the final period.
“We get ourselves in trouble because mentally I don’t think we anticipate what’s happening and we get behind and then we try to make it up with false energy,” D’Antoni said. “It’s one of the obstacles to overcome this year if we want to become a good team.”
Telling commentary, considering D’Antoni said those words before the game. But the same elements persisted. After opening the game with an 8-0 lead, the Nuggets then built as large as a 16-point lead.
For the Lakers’ sake, it might be best for the NBA to listen to the proposal from former Nuggets coach George Karl, who argued as an ESPN analyst that the NBA should strip away back-to-back games to ensure more rest and better play.
“Yeah, and everybody takes a paycut,” D’Antoni said, sarcastically. “I’m sure they’ll do that. Players will stand right in line with that. Coaches will be right there with them. It sounds good to everybody. It’s not going to happen.”