Although George Karl has spent nearly a quarter-century on NBA benches, the Denver coach can't beat down the butterflies when he thinks about the Nuggets' next game.
With a third straight victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night, Denver would become just the ninth team to escape a 3-1 series deficit, completing an improbable comeback against Kobe Bryant and Co. The Nuggets have stared down two elimination games with a maturity their coach only hoped he would see in this series, sending the bigger, stronger Lakers staggering home for a big finish.
Oh, and Saturday is Karl's birthday, too.
"I'm nervous already," Karl said Friday before the Nuggets caught another flight to Los Angeles. "I am 61 years old and I haven't been nervous, this nervous, for a game this early in a long time."
Everybody on both benches should share Karl's anxious stomach — but hopefully not Bryant's upset stomach, which felt much better Friday — when they return to Staples Center to decide a series that seemed pretty straightforward before it got awfully complicated over the previous four days.
While the Nuggets showed a nerve they didn't know they had, the Lakers stopped doing the dirty work that got them to the verge of the second round — and now Denver could sneak past them into a date with Oklahoma City on Monday night.
"I've seen a lot throughout my years, and I'm not that surprised," Bryant said before the sixth Game 7 of his career. "They've played very well and got into a good rhythm now."
While the Nuggets are rolling, the Lakers are reeling: Los Angeles has played horribly for nearly all of the past two games, with Bryant's Game 5 comeback falling short before Denver blew out the Lakers 113-96 in Game 6. If the Lakers blow the series, none of Bryant's teammates will be safe from the wrath of fans who expect championships — or a roster reconfiguration by general manager Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family, which also expects annual contention for rings.
"Everything that has happened in this series has to be behind us, whether it's good or bad," said Pau Gasol, who managed three points on 1-for-10 shooting and three rebounds in Game 6. "We've got to rely on aggressiveness tomorrow, on energy. We've got to want it more than they do."
And the cavalry is coming, in the form of an intense defender with dangerous elbows: Metta World Peace will start Game 7 after finishing his seven-game suspension for viciously hitting Oklahoma City's James Harden in the regular season.
World Peace went through another aggressive workout Friday, but wasn't in his usual genial mood afterward, giving brusque answers to almost every question.
"It's exciting, seven games," World Peace said. "It's just a part of the playoffs. It's entertainment. ... I'm no more motivated than I was. I don't have any extra motivation."
After Denver outworked and outran the Lakers in the last two games, Bryant is confident World Peace will lead the physical play necessary to slow the Nuggets, particularly Danilo Gallinari. But even Bryant's praise of World Peace after Game 6 carried a backhanded swipe at his other teammates.
"I expect him to come out and play with the tenacity that he's known for," Bryant said. "He's the one guy I can rely on, night in, night out, to compete and play hard, and play with that sense of urgency, play with no fear. I'm looking forward to having that on my side again."
Gasol had little reaction when asked about Bryant's comment. Andrew Bynum also didn't have much to say after accenting his unimpressive 11-point performance in Game 6 by again sitting outside the team huddles during timeouts, an occasional regular-season quirk the All-Star center calls "getting my Zen on."
"They're just getting it done from everywhere," Bynum said of the Nuggets. "Not everyone is putting in, so we're stuck in the same boat. The only way to win is to come out and play hard."
Lakers coach Mike Brown is in danger of a disastrous first-round exit for a franchise that made seven NBA finals in the previous 12 years under Phil Jackson. The Lakers' obvious lack of urgency hasn't reflected well on their new coach, who's also hoping World Peace will provide a spark.
"We don't have much to lose, so we're going to play him," Brown said. "If you're a competitor, I think it is fun. You live for moments like this."
The Lakers must immediately improve their effort and hustle after the Nuggets made 51.6 percent of their shots — including 10 3-pointers — and outrebounded Los Angeles 47-42 in Game 6. Denver just needs one more game with the same intensity and aggressive pace.
"It's tough to beat anybody on their home court, especially when they've got their crowd behind them, just like (in Game 6) it was tough to beat us," Denver rookie Kenneth Faried said. "But we've got to go in with the same mindset and the same mentality that we did (in Game 6)."
Bryant is 4-1 in Game 7s in his career, including the decisive game of the 2010 NBA finals against Boston. But another Game 7 is more pertinent to the Lakers' current predicament: His only loss came in 2006 against the Phoenix Suns, who completed the NBA's most recent comeback from a 3-1 series deficit by stunning the Lakers.
"There's a lot of energy in the building, and teams play with a sense of desperation on every single possession," Bryant said. "It's a fun game to be a part of."