LOS ANGELES — After one game of the Western Conference finals, the official score is: Los Angeles Lakers 1, Nuggets coach George Karl 0.
Hey, Karl owes us one. Big time. And he knows it.
"In finishing the game, I wish I could have done better," Karl said Wednesday, still trying to figure out how the Nuggets managed to lose 105-103 to the Lakers in Game 1.
Is this best-of-seven series over? It should be. And the Lakers could be the team that's done, if only Karl had not choked.
Within his own organization, the Nuggets' fifth-year coach is sometimes referred to as George Nai- smith, and it's not necessarily a term of endearment for a guy who can act as if he invented the game.
L.A. coach Phil Jackson admitted Denver outplayed his Lakers on their home floor during the series opener, yet the visitors somehow lost.
Was that a psychological jab at Karl?
Here's the weird part: Although the 1996 NBA Finals were a long time ago, and the memories of his Seattle team losing to the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Jackson should have started to fade, every time Karl stands in the shadow of the Zen Master, your Nuggets coach seems to be trying too hard to impress, and winds up awkwardly playing by that old self-help book from Stuart Smalley, "You're Good Enough, You're Smart Enough and Doggone It, People Like You!"
With a roomful of nervous Hollywood actors chewing the furniture, and the poor-shooting Lakers producing one of the bigger clunkers in an L.A. production since Shaquille O'Neal starred in "Kazaam," the Nuggets somehow snatched defeat from victory in Game 1, if only Karl had not gotten too cute down the stretch.
Down 101-99 after Kobe Bryant made two free throws, Karl committed two coaching blunders. He called a timeout with 30 seconds remaining in the hope of cramming in two offensive possessions before the fourth- quarter clock expired.
"I should have never called timeout. I wish I had saved that timeout for later," Karl said Wednesday.
During the pause in the action, Karl inserted defensive-minded guard Anthony Carter in the lineup. A.C. promptly threw away an inbound pass that gift-wrapped a victory for the Lakers.
"I just like to throw a different lineup out there," said Karl, who had drawn up a play for Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony to work the pick-and-roll. "Once we got the ball in, I think the advantage would've went to us. We didn't get the ball in."
Not only was the unreliable-shooting Carter put in a position to fail on the team's most crucial offensive possession of the contest, Karl also watched helplessly as Nene disappeared from the offense in the second half, and Denver could find no way to get a red-hot Anthony the ball during the final 3 minutes, 25 seconds of a tight game.
The Nuggets still believe they have the better overall team than Los Angeles. But can they overcome the individual greatness of Bryant and the strategic moves being made by the old, steady hand of Jackson, whose record is 42-0 in playoff series that his team opens with a victory?
After blowing a chance to make Jackson sweat, Karl appeared sadder than a George Jones song playing in a honky tonk that has had its liquor license revoked.
But this is the time where Karl must cowboy up, Bubba, because the front-running Nuggets find themselves playing from behind for the first time in the playoffs.
There are doubts Karl must erase before they grow. Nene is paranoid the refs are out to get him. J.R. Smith not only hobbles on a newly injured leg, but appears slowed by thinking too hard under the glare of the bright lights when he should be letting his talent flow.
What can be done to quickly get Smith, whose eight points against L.A. marked the first time he failed to reach double figures in 11 postseason games, back on track?
"Hug him. Get him healthy," Karl said. "Welcome to the NBA. Welcome to, 'Hey, you're one of our best three players, the Lakers know it and they're not going to let you play.' So we've got to be more clever."
Why can Nene be distracted so easily?
"I think Nene gets treated (by the refs) like a first-year player sometimes," Karl said. "And I think he gets messed up by the peripheral rather than staying with 'Hey, it's just basketball.' "
After one game, this much we know is true about the Western Conference finals.
The Nuggets have absolutely no reason to fear Los Angeles.
Bryant alone cannot beat Denver, unless Karl messes up the series by himself.