Carmelo Anthony vs. Kobe Bryant: Nuggets win over Lakers shows what might -- but won't -- be

Carmelo Anthony wasn't always at his best against the L.A. Lakers last night. He vacillated between focused/unstoppable and scattered/ineffective. But he came through when it mattered most, showing the NBA's most elite player, Kobe Bryant, that he belongs in the discussion of the league's best. The result was a 118-112 victory that thrilled a Pepsi Center crowd that included me. If only the team that managed this triumph wasn't about to change...

The Nugs' triumph, which shattered the Lakers season-starting eight-game unbeaten streak, was doubly exciting because for much of the game, a comeback seemed unfathomable. Denver started out strong, with Melo exerting his authority with aggressive play in the opening frame. But during the next two quarters, his hot hand cooled and the Lakers' strengths began to exert themselves.

Specifically, the absence of Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen meant the Lake Show had an enormous advantage in the middle -- one exacerbated by Nenê's consistently weak performance. His one-on-one efforts were a joke thanks in part to footwork that remains second-rate, and while he wound up scoring 18 points, almost all of his total came on dunks that should be credited more to great dishes than to his own skills. And defensively, Pau Gasol simply overpowered him and Al Harrington every time he touched the ball. Indeed, the matchup was so lopsided that had the Lakers exploited it more consistently, both Nenê and Harrington would have fouled out (they each had five at game's end) and Gasol and company would have won in a walk.

But no: The Lakers got cocky, toying with the Nugs throughout the game's middle portion under the apparently reasonable assumption that they could simply turn up the heat at the end and put Denver away. This attitudinal error provided an opening for Ty Lawson, who jolted the Nuggets to life during the fourth quarter with speed and the sort of risk-it-all guts his mates lacked for most of the contest. He singlehandedly brought the Nuggets back into contention, with key help from -- surprise -- J.R. Smith, who managed to avoid taking stupid shots in the fourth, swishing and dishing in ways that would be even deadlier if he could pull off the trick consistently.

Which he can't, unfortunately. But that's another story.

As for the Lakers, Phil Jackson stuck with the second unit for longer than he should have -- another example of cockiness -- and by the time Bryant returned to the lineup, the momentum had dramatically shifted. Moreover, the harassing defense of Arron Afflalo, among others, actually rattled Bryant as the Lakers tried desperately to stem the flow. For most of the game, Kobe glided along, quietly benefiting from refereeing-for-superstars calls to rack up big points (he ended with 34). But down the stretch, he looked frantic, out of control, like a man who'd wandered into an angry swarm of bees.

And what about it's-time-for-a-change Melo? He not only made some key shots during the final stanza, but -- shockingly enough -- he even made a terrific defensive play, registering a steal with less than twenty seconds left to cement the victory. Afterward, he and Bryant embraced -- an acknowledgment that, on this night at least, the two men were equals in greatness.

Problem is, Anthony 2010 seems to need the sort of challenge represented by a brilliant opponent and a packed home crowd singing his name to bring his A-game. At other times -- as in the Nugs' grisly debacle against the Indiana Pacers earlier this week -- he comes across as only mildly interested, as if he's punching a time clock and waiting for a promised transfer to another unit. As a result, the Nuggets are in limbo, and so are the fans, who don't know whether to give their heart to the team or reserve it until we find out who'll be in the lineup for the long haul.

If the Nuggets brought the intensity they displayed in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to every game, they could be legitimate title contenders. Instead, they're an erratic crew, albeit one capable of brilliant moments.

Like the ones last night.

More from our Sports archive: "Carmelo Anthony trade: Does Bret Bearup firing doom revival of NJ Nets/Derrick Favors deal?"

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts