In the first half on Sunday at Staples Center, the Nuggets did almost everything right against the Lakers. The Nuggets were clearly the more aggressive team, getting to the free throw line 23 times -- compared to just four times for the Lakers. Denver forced 14 turnovers, while committing only eight. It held Kobe Bryant to four points, and Andrew Bynum to just two. Denver had an eight-point lead at the end of the first quarter, and led by nine (52-43) at the half.
At the start of the second half, it was almost as if the two teams changed uniforms.
The Lakers stifled the Nuggets with a suffocating defense, led by Ron Artest. After allowing the Nuggets 29 first-quarter points and 23 more in the second, Denver was held to just 18 points in the third. The Lakers were breathing down the Nuggets' neck for the entire third quarter, then caught and passed Denver less than three minutes into the fourth. It was the Lakers' first lead since a 6-5 advantage in the opening minutes, and L.A. never looked back, winning 95-89.
And the Lakers did all of it during a time when Bryant couldn't make a thing -- he was 1-of-10 when the Lakers took the lead. Bryant finished the game with 14 points, making just 3 of 17 shots.
There was no question what this was. The Lakers were punched in the mouth -- hard -- and responded by locking down defensively like they haven't done all year. They won a game that anybody in attendance would have told you was lost before halftime.
But remember, the Nuggets had already defeated the Lakers twice, and almost did it again. Even in defeat, the Nuggets showed that they won't go quietly if the two teams meet in the playoffs, for a couple of reasons.
The first one is a more physical game favors Denver. The Lakers are an athletic team that relies heavily on skill players. The Nuggets are a team built on muscle inside, and sharpshooters outside. Denver likes a game with a lot of bumping, and a lot of whistles. If the Nuggets are getting to the free throw line, they're controlling the pace. On Sunday, Denver attempted 23 free throws in the first half, while the Lakers attempted only four (the Lakers evened this out during the comeback, and Denver finished with 33 free throws, while L.A. had 21).
If things turn into a wrestling match, the Lakers tend to try to fight muscle with muscle, and that leads to a sloppy game. It also makes the officials start to let stuff go, since they can't stop the game every 30 seconds. In one sequence at the four-minute mark of the third quarter, Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom were all fouled on the same possession, and the refs let it all go.
The physicality is one reason the Lakers have struggled, and another reason has to do with the way L.A. defends the 3-pointer.
One of the principals of the triangle system that the Lakers run is to make the other team take tough shots. They don't like to give up any layups, and will protect the paint at all costs. That means they'll allow you to bomb from outside, and take their chances that you can't beat them by shooting a disproportionate number of 3-pointers. Because of that, teams tend to launch more 3s against L.A. than any other team. Entering Sunday's game, the Lakers had allowed more 3-point attempts (81) than any other team. Lakers coaches have told me that this is "fool's gold" for the opponent, because most teams shoot around 35 percent from 3, and much better -- around 45 percent -- from 2-point range.
This has worked out well for L.A. The Lakers are the top defensive team against the 3-pointer in the NBA, allowing opponents to make only 31 percent of shots behind the arc. But that style won't work against the Nuggets.
Denver is third in the league in 3-point shooting, behind only Phoenix and Cleveland. The Nuggets love to shoot 3s, and will do it all game long if you let them. In the win at Staples Center earlier this month, the Nuggets made 15-of-22 from behind the arc. You have to guard the perimeter against the Nuggets, and it's against everything the Lakers believe.
It also tends to turn the game into a 3-point shooting contest, which is rarely good for L.A. When the game is played inside, the Lakers have a huge advantage with the size of Bynum, Odom and Gasol. If the game is played outside, the impact of all of those big guys is minimized.
I'll tell you this: If these two teams meet in the playoffs, it will be must-see TV. Sunday felt like a game played in late May or June.
And chances are it will be.
John Ireland hosts the "Mason & Ireland" show on ESPN Radio 710 in Los Angeles.