LOS ANGELES -- Sure, we've seen this before from Kobe Bryant -- the 40-point night, the clutch shooting, the takeover mentality, closing like Circuit City. Only this came in a different context. This one, which salvaged a 105-103 victory for the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, followed 94 games that followed a summer of Olympic competition that followed a 103-game season.
His 18-point fourth quarter followed his finger popping out and having to be forced back into place, another in a long accumulation of injuries. It came amid the slight signs of fatigue, such as the ball hitting the front of the rim even on some shots that went in. And it all came on the day his sensei passed on "favored son" status to Kobe's younger rival.
Los Angeles 1, Denver 0
Game 2: Thu., 9 ET, LAL
Game 1: Wed., 8:30 ET, CLE
Those were the 10 words from Jerry West that resonated around the league Tuesday. Not that West is the first to say it, but he's easily the most important to say it, given his relevance to Bryant. This isn't just "the critics" or "the media." West was the one who traded for Bryant back before teenagers -- especially teenage guards -- were considered safe picks. He was the one whose counsel Bryant sought when he was first learning his way around the league or squabbling with Shaquille O'Neal.
Bryant claimed that he wasn't offended that someone who meant so much could cast his vote elsewhere, and said, "The debate of who is the best player ... that's going to go on for whatever. That's not something I concern myself with."
Just keep in mind, Kobe doesn't do coincidences ... unless you think it was merely coincidental that he scored 55 points the last time he played Michael Jordan.
Not that this game was about satisfying his personal agenda. The Lakers needed a great game from Kobe because too many other players seemed frozen by the moment and the Denver Nuggets' toughness. Kobe's most honest assessment came when he said, "I felt like the first half, their frontcourt really dominated us."
Not to mention Carmelo Anthony was busy putting his name into the league's best-player conversation by scoring 20 points in his first 20 minutes of play. The Nuggets struck first, taking a 13-point lead in the first quarter.
The Lakers took advantage of the little cracks the Nuggets gave them (missed free throws and poor backcourt shooting) and grabbed the lead at halftime. But the Nuggets are relentless -- the one constant in all three of their playoff losses is they fought to keep the outcome in doubt until the waning seconds -- and sure enough, they had a seven-point lead with seven minutes remaining.
A nervous, impatient murmur/rumble/cheer went through the Staples Center crowd. Kobe sensed the moment, as well, recognized that the game -- and home-court advantage for the series -- was slipping away from the Lakers, and he did something about it. He drove for a layup that cut it to five. He made two free throws on the next possession, then hit a fadeaway jumper the next time down. He scored 15 points in the final seven minutes, and passed to Derek Fisher in the right corner for a critical 3-pointer, as well.
"Tonight we had very little else going on for us, and he muscled his way through that game," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
"A night like tonight, it's something we needed," Bryant said.
Bryant calmly sank free throws after Chauncey Billups made impossible 3-pointers. He kept his balance and cool after Kenyon Martin gave him a message-sending whack on a late drive. He did it all after taking turns guarding Billups and even Anthony for a stretch, among his defensive assignments.
The Lakers felt like they escaped; the Nuggets felt aggravated that they let a great opportunity get away.
It took a disconsolate George Karl a half-minute to even respond to the first postgame question.
"They're great in the game, they have the best closer in the sport, and we didn't do enough," he said. "We didn't do enough to win the game."
Kobe gave as complete a performance as you could ask for from a player, the type of performance we demand of someone who wears the label of superstar. He made 13 of 28 shots, 2 of 3 3-pointers and 12 of 13 free throws, in addition to grabbing six rebounds and dishing out four assists on a night the rest of the team made only 24 shots. He played 43 minutes, including the entire fourth quarter, which he normally starts on the bench.
Nights like this remind you that we should wait for James to actually win a championship or two before we can establish his place among the game's greats. We all love what LeBron is doing. We shouldn't forget what Kobe has done and is still capable of. We didn't unanimously move Michael Jordan past Magic Johnson until he got his ring collection going in the 1990s. We shouldn't call Tiger Woods golf's greatest until he gets past Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors.
The question is whether Bryant can still do this on a nightly basis. It took him four games to put his stamp on the Utah series, and he couldn't deliver the fatal blow to the Houston Rockets in Games 4 and 6 of the last series. The reason LeBron has surpassed him in so many eyes is because LeBron's team has nearly maxed out so far in these playoffs, while Bryant and the Lakers have been advancing on numbers, not style points.
"It hasn't been, 'Can you stay on top as the best individual basketball player,'" Bryant said. "That's not something that has driven me. It's about winning another championship."
Both goals might need to be fused if the Nuggets are going to be this tough and the rest of the Lakers aren't going to respond.
Only two other Lakers scored in double figures -- Pau Gasol and Fisher each had 13, and it took Fisher 13 shots to get there. Jordan Farmar played only nine minutes, his first-half action cut short after attempting a blind, behind-the-back outlet pass. Sasha Vujacic (1-for-5) is still in a shooting slump. Lamar Odom has scored in double figures only once in the past four games. Andrew Bynum has more fouls than field goals in the playoffs.
So it's on Kobe. Does he have to come up with a performance like this three more times to win the series?
"Hopefully not," Bryant said. "But if that's something that's needed, then that's something I'm prepared to do."
He's still clutch ... even if he's no longer Mr. Clutch's choice.
LOS ANGELES -- J.R. Smith says the knee that he tweaked in Tuesday night's frantic Game 1 finish is merely bruised and won't stop him from playing in Thursday night's Game 2.
That's the silver lining for the team that just squandered a golden opportunity.
Apart from Smith's insistence that he's fine -- and maybe the fact that Kobe Bryant is now just two technical fouls away from a one-game suspension -- there is lots for the Denver Nuggets to lament after they started the Western Conference finals with a 105-103 defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.
"The next 48 hours," Nuggets coach George Karl conceded, "are going to be difficult."
That's because the visitors wasted Carmelo Anthony's 39 points and clanked 12 free throws, which pretty much nullified the fact that the Nuggets were sent to the line 11 more times than the hosts. The game was physical and close -- pretty much everything Denver could have wished for after nearly a week off since dismissing Dallas in Round 2 -- but the ending couldn't have been much more painful.
This one will sting even if Smith has indeed survived the hard crash he took in the scramble after he intentionally missed a free throw in the game's final sequence, since Denver came close to breaking through against the mighty Lakers after losing the teams' past 10 playoff meetings.
The Nuggets aren't the first team to let Bryant rumble for 18 points in the fourth quarter, but they also had to live with the sight of Trevor Ariza picking off Anthony Carter's looping inbounds pass to Chauncey Billups in the final minute and L.A. running the clock down to 10 seconds before Bryant was fouled with the Lakers only up two.
In spite of Anthony busting out against a team that held him in check in four regular-season meetings, Denver is behind in a series for the first time this postseason. Bryant scored 12 of his 40 points in the final 5:57 to erase the Nuggets' 93-87 lead and leave them tantalizingly close to clinching the Hollywood split of their dreams on the first try.
"We missed out on a great opportunity to steal this game," Billups said. "We played probably good enough.
"... I watched this team play against the Lakers last year [when Denver got swept in the first round]. I don't think they had one game this competitive. We pretty much controlled the game, most of the game, [but] that's why it's disappointing that we sit here and we lose this game."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Carmelo Anthony scored 39 points in the Nuggets' loss to the Lakers. It was Anthony's fourth consecutive 30-point game, tying Denver's postseason record, set by Alex English in 1985.
• Kobe Bryant scored 18 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 105-103 win over the Nuggets. It was the 17th time that Bryant scored 10 or more points in the fourth quarter of a Lakers playoff win in which they trailed during the fourth period.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers: Even a dislocated finger couldn't slow down Bryant, who scored 18 of his 40 points in the final period as the Lakers ran down the Nuggets to win Game 1 at home.
Anthony Carter, Nuggets: He went 0-for-4 from the field, didn't score a point and made the most critical mistake of the game -- throwing the pass to Chauncey Billups that was picked off by Trevor Ariza.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"There's no moral victories in playoff basketball. The next 48 hours are going to be difficult."
-- Denver coach George Karl, after the Nuggets failed to protect a fourth-quarter lead
(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein)
The Nuggets appeared headed toward a Game 1 win against the Lakers but failed to protect the ball on one end, while allowing Kobe Bryant to do what he wanted to on the other end down the stretch.
LOS ANGELES -- The catalogue of famous postseason steals has historically been tinted green. It includes John Havlicek in Game 7 of the 1965 division finals, Gerald Henderson in Game 2 of the 1984 Finals, and, of course, Larry Bird in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference semifinals.
With 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Lakers clinging to a two-point lead, Carter was set to inbound the ball in the Denver frontcourt, with Ariza assigned to defend Chauncey Billups, the intended recipient.
"Chauncey ran up, and I was a few steps behind," said Ariza. "[Anthony Carter] gave the ball just enough air, and that's all it took."
Had Lakers coach Phil Jackson not switched up the defensive assignments, the play might have never come to pass. At the five-minute mark, Jackson put Kobe Bryant on Carmelo Anthony, leaving Ariza to cover Billups. To defend the inbounds pass, Jackson stuck the lanky Lamar Odom on the shorter Carter.
"The reason [Ariza] got the interception was probably because Carter had to make the pass over Lamar," Jackson said. "The lob pass gave Ariza an opportunity to speed into that ball. That was a huge play for us."
It didn't start out as a banner night for Ariza. His matchup at small forward, Anthony, shredded him early. When defended by Ariza, Anthony shot 7-for-10 from the floor. Ariza's problems weren't limited to the defensive end of the floor. Although he entered the game shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc, Ariza couldn't get his stroke going. He finished with six points on 2-for-8 shooting from the field -- his worst shooting night of the playoffs.
Ariza brushed off any suggestion that the steal was a redemptive moment for him, but teammate Odom was impressed.
"It was a great play," Odom said. "Carmelo was having a great day scoring the ball. For Trevor to stay in the game ... it shows character. We were able to get some pressure on the inbounds and they were close to a five-second call, and Trevor did a great job at anticipating the pass and making the steal."
Asked about the play at his postgame press conference, Nuggets head coach George Karl sighed, then mournfully described what he saw from the Nuggets' bench.
"A.C. probably didn't see him and threw the ball with a little loft to it," Karl said. "[Carter] was surprised at how quick Ariza was. He has a great ability to make plays like that and I just wish [Carter] had called a timeout."
Ariza's quickness and, in Karl's words, ability to make plays stem in large part from his gambling style. Amid his troubles with Anthony and the forgettable shooting night, Ariza dazzled with a spectacular steal at a crucial juncture in the third quarter, when he shot the gap, knocked away a Billups pass and drove the length of the floor before scooping an underhanded pass to a trailing Derek Fisher for an easy layup.
The third-quarter steal won on style points, but Ariza's memorable play in the final minute Tuesday night likely will go down as one of the great acts of thievery in recent memory.
Tuesday's Denver Post has a fascinating story by Ben Hochman on the Nuggets' tattoos, including a great line from Chris Andersen: "We might not lead the league in stats, but we do in tats."
The Nuggets' "wrong side of the tracks" story is the one that sticks most in people's minds, but the more I look at this team, the more similarities I see with the 2004 Detroit Pistons. There's the Chauncey Billups connection, obviously, as well as the team winning 54 games and finishing with the conference's second seed, just like the Pistons. Detroit had to go through the Lakers to a win a championship, as Denver is trying to do, and the Pistons were coached by a North Carolina alum (Larry Brown) who preached sharing the ball and had trouble coexisting with Allen Iverson, just like Nuggets coach George Karl.
To see the four other Insider Gems, click here.
The first thing you notice, when you get into the secret conference room, on the third floor of the NBA offices in Secaucus New Jersey, is that three people are missing.
Who is it who got the honor of representing the Timberwolves here tonight? Who from the Suns will be making certain that nothing untoward happens with the drawing of the pingpong balls? Who will pump his fist in the air on behalf of the Los Angeles Clippers?
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