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Buzzer-beater caps a long day

12/20/2003

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- With the game tied and the ball in Kobe
Bryant's hands, the Denver Nuggets knew they were in trouble.

The Nuggets erased all of a 14-point deficit in the fourth
quarter, but Bryant beat them with a 21-foot jumper at the buzzer,
giving the Los Angeles Lakers a 101-99 victory Friday night after
Bryant arrived late from a court hearing in Colorado.

"It's just greatness," Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "We knew he would ball fake, he always does. But he made the shot. That's why he's great."

Bryant took the inbounds pass from Devean George, drove left,
pump-faked defender Jon Barry off his feet and sank the winning
jumper from the top of the key before falling on his rear end. He
was mobbed by teammates, and the crowd that had welcomed him with a
loud ovation at the start of the second quarter went wild.

The ball left Bryant's hands with one-tenth of a second left.

"Once I got him in the air, I knew he was done," Bryant said. "I just had to get the ball off in time. When there's two or three seconds left on the clock when you get the ball, you have an advantage because the defender really doesn't know the clock. You assume when you shoot you don't have much time left, so he's going to jump. I kept that in mind."

Shaquille O'Neal had 26 points, 11 rebounds and made 10 of 17
free throws to help the Lakers end a two-game losing streak. They
are 13-1 at Staples Center.

The plane carrying Bryant landed at 7:15 p.m., 25 minutes before
tipoff. He arrived at Staples Center with about four minutes left
in the first quarter and quickly warmed up in the locker room
before joining his teammates.

"It's extremely courageous on his part to come and be here with
us after taking care of his personal business," guard Derek Fisher
said. "I'm sure it would have been really easy to just go home and
be with his family and come back to work tomorrow, but he had
enough respect for himself and for us as teammates to come back and
give us the best effort he can give us."

Bryant finished with 13 points and five assists in 31 minutes.
It was the first time since Dec. 7, 1999, that he came off the
bench.

"It's been a long day," said Bryant, who awoke at 4:30 a.m. "That's life. You just have to struggle along with it."

The Lakers got sloppy and blew a nine-point lead in the final two minutes. They were especially careless in the final minute as
O'Neal missed two free throws, Gary Payton missed a layup and
Bryant's jumper missed with 13 seconds left.

"I wasn't happy with the choices and the way we were playing
down the stretch," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "I didn't
design that play for Kobe. It worked out. It was a great shot by
him. He had to get it off early and he did."

O'Neal fouled rookie Carmelo Anthony, who calmly sank both free
throws to tie the game at 99 with 2.5 seconds remaining. "I knew
they were going in, man," Anthony said.

Anthony led Denver with 24 points, going 7-of-7 on free throws. Voshon Lenard added 14 points and Nene had 13.

The Nuggets came into the game tied for first in the Midwest
Division, but the loss coupled with San Antonio's victory left the
Spurs tied with idle Minnesota at the top.

"A heartbreaking loss," Anthony said. "We could've used this
win on our resume, but we see them three more times. We showed them
all that we had."

The Lakers took a 70-60 lead into the fourth quarter. The
Nuggets cut it to 92-86 on a basket by Chris Andersen with 5:21
remaining. It was part of a 12-4 run that came with O'Neal, Karl
Malone and Payton on the bench.

At that point, O'Neal and Payton rejoined Bryant to help build a
95-86 lead. Then Fisher was called for a technical foul when he
tried to rip the ball out of Barry's hands. Barry hit the free
throw and Anthony scored to get the Nuggets back within six points.

Rodney White hit a 3-pointer and Nene scored inside off a nifty pass from Andre Miller as Denver trailed 99-95 with 1:16 remaining.

O'Neal helped the Lakers dominate the paint, where they outscored Denver 54-32. They also had a 16-6 edge in fast-break points.

Los Angeles led by 19 points in the third quarter, when Bryant
scored the first six points and O'Neal was active inside. Bryant,
O'Neal, Malone and Payton scored 21 of the Lakers' 23 points in the
period.

Game notes
G Kareem Rush made his first career in place of Bryant and
finished with four points in five minutes. ... The Lakers improved
to 16-0 when holding their opponent to under 100 points. They're
also 16-0 in games they've led at halftime. ... Denver needs one
more victory to equal its win total from last season, when the team
was 17-65 and tied Cleveland for the NBA's worst mark. ... The
Lakers have beaten Denver five consecutive times, including a 4-0
sweep last season, and 13 of 14 times in Los Angeles.