LOS ANGELES -- They mocked Carmelo Anthony's socks because the gaudy red-and-white pattern matched the hat on the front of all those Dr. Seuss books.
They razzed Chauncey Billups for continuing to carry a Michigan driver's license and snickered at his mug shot as teammates passed it around.
The Denver Nuggets generally masked their despair quite well late Tuesday night, leaving visitors to the losing locker room at Staples Center with the distinct impression that falling agonizingly short of what might have been the finest win in the club's NBA history might not capsize this team.
We won't know for sure until we see how they actually rebound when the Western Conference finals resume Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- and we have to exclude an undeniably devastated George Karl when we make the following claim -- but the Nuggets seemed to deal reasonably well with the fact that they didn't handle Game 1 crunch time against Kobe Bryant's Lakers well at all.
"Win or lose, good or bad, you've got to have a short memory," Billups insisted after the Nuggets absorbed copious amounts of vintage Kobe in the fourth quarter to come away with a crushing 105-103 defeat.
"Game 1 is always a feel-out game, see what teams are doing, what is going on. You make your adjustments for Game 2."
What happens next will certainly be an adjustment for the Nuggets, who zoomed to cushy 2-0 leads in the first two rounds of the playoffs against New Orleans and Dallas, leading to comfortable 4-1 routs that only reinforced their reputation as the NBA's foremost front-runners.
This time, though, Denver has to play from behind. The Nuggets, furthermore, do so knowing that (a) Anthony couldn't have played any better offensively than he did in the opener, ( Jerry West has (intentionally?) revved Kobe into a dangerous fury with his lavish public praise of LeBron James and © coming away with a split in these first two games in Hollywood isn't just the dream scenario. It's a must.
It's an assignment made no easier by the knowledge that NBA skeptics nationwide are just waiting to see if the Nuggets, as frequently suggested, will crack after getting their first hard push of the postseason.
"Why y'all waiting for that?" Anthony said as he prepped to follow Bryant into the interview room, having amassed 39 points on 14-for-20 shooting, including 16 points in the first quarter after averaging a mere 14.5 points in four regular-season meetings with L.A.
"Why y'all want to see us fail?"
That's really not the case. The Nuggets have a team full of interesting stories and colorful characters that has the national hoops press hooked. There is no shortage of neutrals rooting for Denver to stick around for a while.
Yet those same pests also want proof that Denver can grind out a gut-check game against tested, top-shelf competition before Melo, Chauncey and Co. are stamped as official residents of the league's upper crust. This was an ideal opportunity for the Nuggets to make that statement, after ringing up an early 13-point lead and taking a six-point edge into the final 5:57, only for Denver to wither in a manner that left Karl unable to hide his disappointment.
"I'm not really going to analyze [it]," Karl said. "They're a great team, they're great in the end, they have the best closer in the sport and we didn't do enough. We didn't do enough to win the game."
Agreed. The game was right there for them, too, even with Bryant in one of his trademark fourth-quarter zones that bailed out his increasingly unpredictable supporting cast.
Denver missed 12 free throws, including nine in the first half, which pretty much canceled out its 21-11 edge in free throw attempts through the first two quarters. J.R. Smith and even Billups admitted afterward that they weren't diligent enough in making sure Anthony got the ball in the final three-plus minutes, with Melo on the brink of scoring 40 himself.
The coach was culpable, too, since it was Karl's curious call to have Anthony Carter -- whose forte isn't deft passing -- taking the ball out on a crucial inbounds play in the final half-minute that required him to get it past Lamar Odom's long limbs and into Billups' hands with Trevor Ariza blanketing Chauncey. Carter compounded the trouble by declining to call a timeout and lofting an ill-advised pass that Ariza snatched for a game-turning steal, but you surely see the problem.
The new Nuggets simply left too many openings for Bryant to will L.A. to its 11th consecutive playoff victory over Denver. That's one shy of the NBA record: L.A.'s 12 consecutive playoff wins over Seattle from 1980 to '89. When he wasn't rumbling for 18 points in the fourth, Bryant was switching onto Anthony on D at the end after stints on Billups and Smith.
"Great game for 46 and a half minutes," said Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, whose ill-advised foul on Bryant gave Kobe two free throws that staked L.A. to a 101-99 lead and had Billups shaking his head.
Added Lakers coach Phil Jackson, twisting the knife some more: "I think they outplayed us and we won the game."
The early omens, upon reflection, were telling for the Nuggets. Renaldo Balkman, who has a shot to see the floor in this series as an extra defender for the Nuggets' Kobe Unit, sprained his right ankle in pregame warm-ups. Mr. Big Shot, meanwhile, missed his first three free throws, including two with 2.2 seconds to play in the first quarter that could have hiked the Nuggets' lead to 10 entering the second.
How much of this can the Nuggets forget during what Karl openly described as a "difficult" wait for Game 2? How quickly can they learn to live with the taunting fact that Jackson is probably right? How much falls on Billups -- after all the praise he's received for the poise he's provided to his hometown team -- to drag them past the regrets that come with failing to win on a night that the refs, at least for three quarters, had no quarrel with the slappin' and strippin' and physicality Denver thrives on?
"I'm disappointed, but I'm not mad," Billups said at his locker stall, preaching calm and then staying calm when Smith and rookie Sonny Weems swiped his license.
"We're fine, man. We'll have other opportunities."