The Nuggets got solid performances from reserves Smith and Chris Andersen, who tied a career high with seven blocks, pulled down 12 rebounds and chipped in 11 points, and their defense was, to a man, absolutely outstanding.
The Lakers, who brought the NBA's best record (48-10) into town when they checked into their hotel at 4 a.m., had their second-worst shooting night since the franchise moved to Southern California nearly a half century ago from Minneapolis -- 29.8 percent.
"That was a garbage game, no doubt about it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I wish we could repay the fans some money for that game. Neither team played very well, but they played better than us."
The Lakers, who saw their six-game winning streak snapped, were on pace for their worst shooting night when Jordan Farmar's breakaway layup with 5.1 seconds left allowed them to beat the old low-water mark of 29.4 percent set against Utah in 2004.
It was the only shot they Nuggets didn't contest all night.
"It's been a long time," Denver coach George Karl said. "They've beaten us, they've hurt us, they've dominated us."
At long last, the tables finally turned.
"Tonight, we (played) as active and as intelligent of a defensive game as I think we've played all year long or maybe ever since I've been here," Karl said. "We challenged a lot of shots, it was a tremendously active defensive game."
Bryant scored 29 points but he needed 31 shots to do it, sinking 10 of them, and he was hounded by Smith in the fourth quarter when the Nuggets held the Lakers to 16 points and Bryant went 2-for-9.
"I thought in the fourth quarter, that's by far the best defensive game I've ever seen him play," Karl said of Smith.
Karl said his challenge now is to get this type of defensive dominance out of his team every night.
Mix this "with our offensive skills, we can be great," Karl said. "This is a playoff type of game for us. I'm not sure they played it that way, but it's going to be a good night and a good sunrise."
Bryant said this was the perfect storm of a fatigued team facing a fired-up team on little rest with little room for error.
"They played really aggressively defensively," Bryant said. "On top of that, we just didn't have any legs. On top of them doing a good job and us having no legs, we just had a horrible shooting effort."
Lamar Odom was 5-for-17 and the bench was a combined 3-for-19.
"We got in at 4 in the morning, so we didn't want to run up and down, we wanted to slow down," Odom said.
But not this much.
"All the five guys that were on the court, no matter if it was starters or the bench, I saw everybody locked in," Chauncey Billups said. "I saw everybody helping one another, everybody talking, people down in the defensive position the whole time.
"It was a beautiful defensive game."
Carmelo Anthony had 12 points and 12 rebounds for Denver. In years past, he said if he was held to a dozen points, "there was no way we were going to win."
"We've got a totally different team, a totally different mind-set."
One he hopes will finally lead to his initial playoff success after five straight first-round flame-outs.
The Lakers had won five straight regular-season games plus a four-game sweep in the playoffs last year when the Nuggets became the first 50-win team to get shut out in the postseason.
Four nights after suffering a 38-point blowout by Boston at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets hung tough with the Lakers, leading 66-63 after three quarters before pulling away.
"We really looked forward to playing another team like this after that Boston massacre," Billups said. "They came into town with the best record, best team in basketball, it was a great opportunity for us."
Andersen led the way, pulling down a key rebound and rejecting a shot at one end and making two nifty layups at the other to help the Nuggets stretch their lead to 74-63.
Denver center Nene returned from a two-game absence with a bruised right knee and logged 20 effective minutes but wasn't needed down the stretch thanks to Smith and Andersen's defense.
Karl couldn't stop smiling, all his years of preaching defense finally paying off with a signature win.
"It's a good night," he said. "The beer will taste like champagne."
- The Nuggets' last win against Los Angeles came on April 9, 2007, when they beat the Lakers 115-111 at the Pepsi Center.
- The teams were a combined 5-for-42 from long range.
- Odom had 19 rebounds.