For a team Kobe Bryant guaranteed would make the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers learned quickly that stamina is imperative.
The Lakers hope to be rested Thursday night, when they return to Staples Center for a home matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Three nights ago in the high altitude of Denver, the Nuggets ran the Lakers out of the building with a 119-108 victory. The hosts outscored Los Angeles, 78-50, in the paint and registered a one-sided 33-3 advantage on the fastbreak. Denver led by as many as 18 points in the second half, while the Lakers never got closer than seven points later on.
Bryant, who recently said L.A. would make the playoffs and fear no team when that happened, led the Lakers with 29 points, making 12-of-23 from the floor, and added nine assists and six rebounds. Dwight Howard had 15 points and a game-best 14 rebounds, but made only 3-of-14 foul shots. Steve Nash and Metta World Peace chipped in 16 and 15 points, respectively.
"We came in and played a team that plays extremely well at home. They obviously have advantages on us in terms of their athleticism and speed and they took advantage of it tonight," Bryant said following the second of a back-to-back.
Bryant had 38 points in the previous win at Dallas. Los Angeles entered the night having won three in a row and 11 of 15 games. The Nuggets are a playoff- bound team barring any major setbacks and right now match up well with a Lakers team trying to come together.
"We should be able to get up and down the floor a little bit more," Bryant said after Wednesday's practice. "It's always concerning once you have a tough road game to come back home, but we'll be ready."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni was asked after practice about Monday's game and what he sees from his team down the road.
"We ran into a good Denver team and our legs weren't quite good enough to get us back," D'Antoni said. "We didn't get set up, but little by little it's been a struggle. We have a little stretch here, we need to make some hay. We can't let up at all because we dug ourselves a big hole. We're climbing out of it slowly, but every game is crucial, every play is crucial, and as long as the guys are pushing with that mentality, then we'll be ok."
The Lakers are 2 1/2 games behind idle Houston for the eighth and final postseason spot in the West. Howard is aware of that, too, and is still trying to get into tip-top condition.
"Just trying to push myself into shape. I think I'm in good shape for a basketball player, but not as Superman shape," Howard said. "I want to get into Superman shape, so I'm going to keep working until I get there."
Howard said the altitude in Denver limited the Lakers from running plays and "doing screens," but said the Lakers will keep fighting and pushing to turn things around. The chiseled All-Star said the team understands that playing together and communicating will bear fruitful results. However, Howard added that it takes time to jell and it will eventually come together.
D'Antoni alluded to injuries and a change of styles for Los Angeles' struggles this season. He noted it will take a while and that scoreboard watching is useless unless you're winning games. His patience has been tested and there's still plenty of room for improvement, according to D'Antoni.
The Lakers have won two straight at home, are 18-11 as the host and will also welcome the Atlanta Hawks to Hollywood on this quick stand. On the injury front, big man Pau Gasol has missed nine straight games with a foot issue and is nearing a return to action.
According to the Lakers, "Pau saw Dr. Yoon yesterday and had an ultrasound test done. His healing process is coming along, and he has been cleared to work out on the Precor machine."
Gasol is a valuable piece to the team and is averaging 13.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. His absence has enabled Howard to become more comfortable in the offense and it will only make L.A. more dangerous when the two bigs are back on the floor at full strength.
Minnesota knows plenty about injuries. Kevin Love (hand), Chase Budinger (knee) and Brandon Roy (knee) all suffered issues this season and Andrei Kirilenko (calf) is expected to miss Thursday's game. Nikola Pekovic is nursing an illness and is listed as probable against the Lakers.
The Timberwolves need to be at full strength since they have dropped 20 straight and 23 of the past 24 meetings with the Lakers. The Wolves are winless in the last 12 visits to Staples Center and own a lowly 4-21 mark in that building against the Lakers. Minnesota lost the first meeting of the season with Los Angeles, a 111-100 decision on Feb. 1 in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota is mired in a three-game slide overall and owns just four wins since early January (4-19). In an 84-83 overtime loss at Phoenix Tuesday in the opener of a three-game trek, Derrick Williams scored 21 points to go along with 12 rebounds and Pekovic added 18 points and 12 boards in defeat.
Phoenix had a 31-18 advantage in the second quarter before the Wolves mounted a comeback. The Suns, though, had a 7-6 edge in the extra session.
"We started off slow again. We're not making shots like we know we can but we did a good job in the fourth quarter," Williams said.
The Wolves have struggled on the road this season, going 7-20 outside of the Twin Cities, and are a lowly 1-10 in the last 11 as the guest. Minnesota, which is 0-12 when scoring less than 90 points, will put the finishing touches on the jaunt Saturday at Portland.