Denver Nuggets coach George Karl has won the seventh-most games of any coach in NBA history, so he can tell when a team is ready for the playoffs and when one isn't.
Karl's inexperienced Nuggets weren't prepared in their postseason opener Sunday against the Lakers, but they vowed to come back Tuesday night at Staples Center with more speed and aggressiveness.
They did so only sporadically in a Game 2 that left the Lakers looking like NBA Finals threats again. Los Angeles never lost its early lead and won again, 104-100, taking a 2-0 lead in the first-round Western Conference playoff series.
"We're young and we're learning," Karl said.
The Nuggets started slowly but eventually found some playoff aggressiveness with the help of point guard Ty Lawson's 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting.
That wasn't as much production as the Lakers got from Kobe Bryant (38 points on 15-of-29 shooting) and Andrew Bynum (playoff-career-high 27 points on 12-of-20 shooting). The duo carried a Los Angeles offense that made just two of 15 attempts from 3-point range.
"They relaxed a little bit on the double-teaming, and I was able to take advantage," Bynum said.
Karl looks at the Lakers' roster and sees future Hall of Famer Bryant, new All-Star Bynum and past All-Star Pau Gasol. He said: "We're not going to beat the Lakers unless we get five or six guys playing at a high level."
Lawson stepped up, but Danilo Gallinari shot 5-for-18 from the field while scoring 13 points, and super-sub Al Harrington was spotty again with 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting. Bryant said the Lakers are OK with Lawson having big games as long as he doesn't get his teammates going, too.
Lakers guard Ramon Sessions hit a floater with 1:14 to play, boosting Los Angeles' lead to 100-94 after a 3-pointer from Gallinari gave the Nuggets renewed hope.
Karl all but guaranteed a fast start for his team in pregame comments to reporters. Instead, the Nuggets missed their first six shots and fell behind 12-3, at which point Karl called timeout.
Among the early gaffes by the Nuggets were leaving Bryant unguarded on one possession, leading to a dunk, and setting up their defense to allow a 2-on-1 fast break for Gasol and Bynum on another, with Bynum dunking.
Karl's timeout did help Denver refocus itself.
With better tenacity on the offensive boards and an increased effort to get into the paint, the Nuggets cut the Lakers' lead to 14-13 midway through the first quarter.
Bryant took advantage of fewer double-team defenses running at him compared to Game 1 and poured in 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first quarter. The Lakers shot 60.9 percent from the field for a 32-25 lead.
The Nuggets, the NBA's highest-scoring regular-season team at 104 points per game, were able to stay close by keeping the pace faster than it was in Sunday's game. Sessions didn't help his team's cause by forcing quick shots, resulting in a timeout by Lakers coach Mike Brown to slow the Lakers down.
"He's coaching with great poise," Bryant said of the first-year Lakers boss.
The Nuggets capped the first half with a put-back from rookie power forward Kenneth Faried, and it was Denver's 18-4 advantage in second-chance points that kept them close. The Lakers still led 55-48 at the break.
NOTES: Lakers forward Jordan Hill played his usual role in the rotation as the first big man off the bench despite news coming out Monday about a felony assault charge against him in Houston. Said Hill: "I was definitely shocked like everybody else." He scored six points and tied Gasol with a team-high 10 rebounds in 21 minutes. ... Bryant is auctioning off the mask he wore for 11 games this season while playing through a broken nose, with the proceeds benefiting the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation.