DENVER — Carmelo Anthony had a better supporting cast than Kobe Bryant on a night he really needed it.
With Anthony sick and injured, his ensemble pitched in and lifted the Denver Nuggets to a 120-101 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday that evened the Western Conference finals at two games apiece.
"Tonight, all of them stepped up," Anthony said.
They had to with their star hobbled by a sprained ankle and a stomach virus, something he picked up just before game time and which forced him to receive IV treatment at halftime.
Anthony, who’s averaging 27.1 points in the postseason, struggled to find his rhythm, going 3-for-16 from the field and finishing with 15 points.
No matter, though. J.R. Smith had his back. So did Chauncey Billups.
Both finished with 24 points and hit clutch shots in the fourth quarter to lift the Nuggets’ spirits as they head into Game 5 tonight in L.A.
"We know the importance of that game," Billups said.
The Nuggets’ bench got back into the act on Monday, outscoring their counterparts 42-24.
"It’s satisfying," Anthony said. "It’s very satisfying to win a game knowing I wasn’t 100 percent out there tonight."
Bryant didn’t have quite the same support.
Still, he tried to carry the Lakers down the stretch, scoring 13 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter.
"They just whooped us, period," Bryant admitted. "They whooped us on the glass. They whooped us to loose balls."
Fatigue may finally be catching up with the Lakers, who had to endure a grueling seven-game series against Houston while the Nuggets got to relax for a few days after wrapping up their tussle with Dallas in five.
Bryant even conceded as much, saying he was exhausted after almost single-handedly pulling one out for the Lakers in Game 3 that gave them back homecourt advantage.
"But you just gotta push through it," Bryant said. "They played harder and better, period."
And that was with an ailing Anthony.
"It just shows we have heart and can play with a man down," Smith said.
Smith ignited the Nuggets by rediscovering his outside shot. After going 4-for-15 from the field in Game 3, his confidence was reeling.
So Smith stayed late after practice on Sunday, firing up one jumper after another.
"I think it worked," said a smiling Smith, who hit back-to-back 3 pointers late in the game to help snuff out a final Lakers charge.
Nuggets coach George Karl never lost faith in Smith.
"I think his talent and his skill is flamboyant, explosive," Karl said. "It makes us a very explosive team."
Pau Gasol, frustrated by a lack of touches, knows how the Lakers can be more explosive — by dumping the ball into the paint more often.
"I wish we would take more advantage of our inside game, because it’s pretty effective," said Gasol, who finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. "It’s unfortunate we don’t recognize it enough."
Yet he holds out hope.
"It’s got to be a team-conscious effort and mindset," Gasol said. "We always have a better chance when we establish ourselves inside."
The Nuggets had seven different players score in double figures, including Kenyon Martin and Nene who each had a double-double. Chris "Birdman" Andersen provided a boost off the bench, grabbing 14 boards for the Nuggets, who outrebounded the Lakers 58-40. "We got hammered from every direction tonight," Lakers forward Luke Walton said.
And Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson was none too pleased about that.
He was particularly upset about Dahntay Jones’ trip of Bryant in the third quarter, calling it unsportsmanlike.
Jones didn’t give the assertion a moment’s thought. Jackson becomes the latest coach to label Jones a dirty player during the playoffs, joining Byron Scott of the Hornets, who said the same thing in the first round.
"Just playing hard," Jones said. "If he can’t respect it, I’m sorry. I’m trying to be aggressive and give it all I have out there. My teammates appreciate it."
Anthony certainly does.
"Dahntay is Dahntay," Anthony said. "That’s what he’s been doing."