Kobe Bryant isn’t the best player in the league, according to his boss.
He arguably didn’t even have the best game of any player in Game 1, but he willed the Los Angeles Lakers to a 105-103 victory to take the opening game of the Western Conference Finals over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
It was clear from the opening tip off that Bryant came out motivated, perhaps in part to his boss Jerry West, who commented on how his superstar has been surpassed by LeBron James as the best player in the NBA.
Bryant took his frustrations out on the Nuggets, finishing with a game-high 40 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter.
Carmelo Anthony was equally as impressive as his Olympic teammate, and had the point lead until the final five seconds. Anthony finished with 39 points after scoring 16 in the first quarter.
His fourth-straight 30-point playoff game ties the franchise record set by Alex English in 1985.
Both players grabbed six rebounds and had four assists.
The Nuggets led by as many as 13 points in the first quarter and seven with seven minutes to go in the fourth.
“There are no moral victories in playoff basketball,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “The next 48 hours are going to be difficult. We’re going to try to regroup and re-energize.”
With the game tied at 99 with 30 seconds to go, Kenyon Martin unintentionally fouled Bryant, sending him to the line.
After Bryant drilled both free throws, the Nuggets had a chance to tie the game, but Anthony Carter turned the ball over off an inbounds pass. The 6' 2" Carter had trouble seeing Trevor Ariza guarding Chauncey Billups over the 6' 10" Lamar Odom.
“(Ariza) has a great ability to make plays like that,” Karl said. “I just wish (Carter) would’ve called timeout.”
Trevor Ariza stole the ball and Game 1 as Bryant again sunk his shots from the charity stripe.
“I had to do something, I was getting served all game,” Ariza said.
Bryant went six-for-six from the line in the final 30 seconds to propel the Lakers to victory.
His 40 points tied his 2009 playoff high. On May 6 he scored 40 points in Game 2 against the Houston Rockets after hearing the media talk about how well Shane Battier guarded him the previous game.
The 40-point performance was the eighth of his career, the third most among active players.
His slow start in the game didn’t discourage the superstar from taking his shots when his team needed him most.
“It’s a part of basketball. It’s a part of the game,” Bryant said. “There are some games you will get out to a quick start, there are some games you will not.
“I just had to gut it out. I had to dig deep a little bit, see if we can’t pull it out. Once I sensed we didn’t have the energy, I had to take it upon myself to lead by example.”
“He came out and was just aggressive,” Nuggets’ guard J.R. Smith said. “He was just being Kobe.”
Aside from Bryant, the only Lakers player to contribute heftily to the win was Pau Gasol, who had a quiet double-double with 13 points and 14 rebounds.
Bryant’s gimmes weren’t the only important free throws in the game, Denver missed nine of their own—in the first half. Three of those were by Chauncey Billups who entered the game hitting 96 percent of his free throws this postseason.
It doesn’t hurt the Lakers’ chances that the team that wins Game 1 of a seven-game playoff series wins the series nearly 80 percent of the time, but throw in the fact that Phil Jackson-coached teams are a perfect 42-0 in a series when his team wins Game 1, and L.A. is sitting pretty.
Denver fell to 2-15 in Game 1 road games since the franchise came into the league in the 1976-77 season.
The Nuggets have now lost three playoff games this postseason by a combined total of six points.
Bryant re-dislocated the same finger he originally hurt against the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this year, late in the fourth quarter. He said he was fine after he immediately popped the finger back in and would be ready to go in Game 2.
Smith was hurt in the final seconds of the game. After intentionally missing his free throw attempt, he said he hyperextended his knee but would be fine.
The Lakers are now 7-1 at home this postseason and have won 11 straight playoff games against the Nuggets.
“It’s only one game,” Smith said. “They’re supposed to win this one. We’ll try and steal the next one and go home.”