DENVER — Greg Buckner’s expression never changes.
Whether he’s playing well or struggling, feeling well or hurting, the Denver Nuggets guard carries a serious, almost blank look on his face.
So when he was asked to explain why the Nuggets — who drubbed the fading Los Angeles Lakers, 117-96, on Thursday — are playing so well, he was stone-faced and convincing.
“We’re good,” he said. “I don’t want to be cocky, but we’re good.”
It’s hard to argue with him. The Nuggets have won five straight and 13 of their last 14, and they have all but eliminated the Lakers from the playoff race. Denver is now 37-30 and increased its lead by three games over Minnesota for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Not only was Thursday’s win convincing because it was by a large margin, but the Nuggets were also missing their starting center and power forward. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby both sat out with injuries, and head coach George Karl had to reach deep into his bench for a starting lineup.
It didn’t matter. Five players, led by Earl Boykins’ 21 points and DerMarr Johnson’s 20 points, were in double figures.
“Everybody’s feeling good,” said Johnson, who can boast that the Nuggets are 13-0 when he’s in the starting lineup. “The bench guys are coming in and hitting shots, and we’re pulling away from teams with our bench along with the starters. Everybody feels good about their game.”
The Lakers don’t. The defending Western Conference champions have now lost seven straight and are 51/2 games behind Denver in the playoff chase. They couldn’t take advantage of Denver’s lack of size, and Kobe Bryant couldn’t get going. The Nuggets held the NBA’s second-leading scorer to 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and he missed all four of his 3-point attempts.
“We have hung our heads a little bit, but I felt like they just played much better than we did,” Bryant said.
Bryant had trouble getting going because of Johnson and Buckner. The two gave Bryant different problems — Johnson with his long, thin frame and Buckner with his strong, compact body.
“Me and Greg, it was a group effort,” Johnson said. “It was that way the last time he came in here.”
The Lakers hung with Denver for the first half. The Nuggets trailed 48-45 before Carmelo Anthony, who finished with 16 points, hit a 3-pointer to tie it with 1 minute, 50 seconds left in the second quarter. Andre Miller followed with a 19-foot jumper and two layups to give Denver a 54-49 lead at the half.
Miller finished with 18 points.
The Nuggets never trailed after that, and they expanded the lead to as much as 27 points when Buckner hit a pair of free throws with 3:20 left in the game.
“That’s how it’s been for us lately,” Johnson said. “Our confidence is so high. In the third quarter, we pull away from a team, and that’s what happened (Thursday).”
The game might have buried the Lakers’ playoff hopes, but Buckner felt the Nuggets had put them in their rear-view mirror before Thursday’s opening tip.
“I don’t think we were competing with the Lakers anymore and kind of knew those guys weren’t going to be the team we had to worry about to make the playoffs,” he said. “So it’s time to take care of business and worry about the Nuggets.”
Based on their 20-5 record under Karl, there hasn’t been much to worry about the last two months. With one contest left on this seven-game homestand, the Nuggets are flying high.
“We’re just a very good team right now, very confident,” Buckner said. “Coach has confidence in every one of the guys that he puts on the court that he’s going to make a contribution. Everyone’s stepping up their game.”