Kobe Bryant’s 3-pointer wasn’t nearly as dramatic as LeBron James’ but equally effective.
Bryant’s big shot over J.R. Smith gave Los Angeles a one-point lead with just over a minute left Saturday night and sparked the Lakers to a 103-97 victory over the downtrodden Denver Nuggets for a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Bryant, who scored 41 points, went 5-of-6 on free throws to ice it after his 3-pointer gave Los Angeles a 96-95 lead.
Carmelo Anthony scored 21 points but just three after halftime for Denver, which lost at home for the first time since March 9. He was 4-for-13 in his worst performance of the postseason.
Before Saturday night, the Nuggets had been dominant at home in the playoffs. They ran away with all six games at Pepsi Center against the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks by an average of 17.5 points.
But as Bryant said, “It’s the Western Conference finals. It should be close.”
The Nuggets, who led most of the game but were done in by poor decisions and a failure to keep their composure, fell behind by four points when Trevor Ariza stole Kenyon Martin’s inbounds pass, was fouled by Anthony and sank two foul shots for a 99-95 lead with 36 seconds left.
Chauncey Billups’ two free throws made it 99-97, but Bryant sank two more free throws with 22 seconds remaining, Billups missed a 3-pointer and Bryant capped his big night with two more foul shots with 12 seconds left.
Several hours before the game, Bryant was admiring James’ buzzer-beater that gave Cleveland a 96-95 win over Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, saying big-time players make big-time shots.
He showed that.
The Nuggets had won 16 in a row at home, and now Los Angeles has grabbed back the home-court advantage.
Game 4 is Monday night, when the Lakers and Nuggets will have the Pepsi Center to themselves after World Wrestling Entertainment moved Monday Night Raw to the Staples Center in Los Angeles because of the double booking that WWE chairman Vince McMahon milked for all it was worth.
That doesn’t mean the crowd in Denver won’t see some elbows, forearms and more trash talking like they did Saturday night, when there were five technicals called, including one on Smith for taunting Sasha Vujacic after swishing a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer.
The Nuggets took a 79-71 lead on Smith’s bucket. Vujacic, who had just hit a 3-pointer of his own, his first points of the game, nearly stole Billups’ pass, but Smith snared it, spun and swished the 3-pointer as the backboard lit up in red and he fell to the floor with the crowd going crazy.
Caught up in the moment, Smith jumped up jawing at Vujacic and was T’d up.
Denver coach George Karl told ABC at the break that he didn’t like the way the Nuggets had played the third quarter, saying they had lost composure with fouls and technicals and weren’t playing smart.
Before the fourth quarter started, Bryant swished the technical free throw, and the comeback had begun.
After Billups’ four-point play—a 3-pointer while getting bumped by Bryant — gave Denver a 89-86 lead, Pau Gasol hit back-to-back jumpers over Nene to put the Lakers back on top, and Bryant’s bucket made it 92-91 with three minutes left.
The Lakers were just 9-of-17 on free throws in the first half and Denver hit 17 of 20, but the Nuggets couldn’t break free for one of their patented spurts, twice missing three shots on one trip downcourt when a bucket would have given them some cushion.
Lakers C Andrew Bynum has been saying he wants to play more minutes and his coach said he can if he plays better defense. … Bryant grabbed his right hamstring after Martin rejected his shot early in the third quarter, but he stayed in the game and quickly showed he was quite all right by hitting an uncontested 3-pointer.