It was nine clutch free throws by Kobe Bryant and an outstanding defensive play by Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza in the Fourth Quarter that got the Lakers past the Denver Nuggets, 105-103, in the first game of their Western Conference Finals.
Instead of the Lakers, this time it was the Nuggets who blew a big lead.
With the help of Lakers’ turnovers and awful shooting, Denver led by as many as 13 points in the First Quarter. The Lakers bench came back in the closing minutes to cut that lead to 31-23.
Carmelo Anthony had a blazing hot seven-of-eight First Quarter including two-of-two from beyond the arc for 16 points. Kenyon Martin put up eight points and Chauncey Billups added six assists.
But it was the Lakers' bench along with Kobe Bryant that got the Lakers back in the game in the Second Quarter. Then a last second three-pointer by Derek Fisher, who had been a wild 0-for-6 up to then, put the Lakers up 55-54 at halftime.
The Lakers' bench out-shot the Nuggets' bench 20-3 while Kobe Bryant put in 18 first-half points. The Nuggets' bench had been averaging 32 points per game during the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Even though the Lakers only shot 38 percent to 53 percent for the Nuggets, the Lakers grabbed nine offensive rebounds while the Nuggets missed nine free throws.
The lead flipped back and forth in the Third Quarter with the Nuggets finally coming out on top 76-74. But Kobe Bryant had a fairly quiet quarter with just six points. The Lakers faithful were hoping that Mr. Clutch would erupt in the final stanza.
And erupt he did, with his 36th 30-points or better playoff game, passing Shaquille O’Neal.
Both teams battled in the final quarter as Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony went at it. Denver led by as many as seven points in the quarter, but Derek Fisher hit another three-point shot to cut into that lead and Kobe Bryant did the rest.
Bryant and Anthony had battled all night long...but not as intensely as they did in the Fourth Quarter. It was Bryant’s 18 points, including nine clutch free throws, and a Trevor Ariza steal that captured the win for the Lakers.
With under a minute to play and the Lakers up by two points, George Karl had Anthony Carter inbound the ball. The Lakers countered with Lamar Odom and his long arms towering over Carter who lobbed the ball to Chauncey Billups in the backcourt.
The teardrop lob gave a hustling Trevor Ariza just enough time to leap in front of Billups for a steal. Ariza eventually got the ball into Bryant’s hands. Bryant passed up a jump shot and drove to the basket where he was hammered.
Mr. Clutch hit both free throws to put the Lakers up by four 103-99. Billups came back with a three-pointer to pull within one point with just six seconds remaining. Bryant whipped past Denver defenders to snare the inbound pass, and Carmelo Anthony was forced to foul his former Team USA teammate.
Again, Bryant hit both free throws to put the Lakers up 105-102. Derek Fisher fouled J.R. Smith with just three seconds left. Smith made the first and missed the second so the Nuggets would have a shot at grabbing the rebound.
But guess who came up with the ball?
Need I say anything more?
In the battle between Bryant and Anthony, Bryant just barely outpointed his rival 40-39.
Anthony took the First Quarter, but in the Fourth Quarter, it was Bryant who came up huge with 18 points on four-of-five shooting and nine-of-nine from the free throw line.
Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher each had 13 points. Gasol grabbed 14 rebounds and Lamar had eight rebounds as the Lakers took the measure of the Nuggets on the boards, 46-37 overall and 17-7 on the offensive boards.
Chauncey Billups finished with 18 points and game-high eight assists. The Nuggets' frontcourt—Kenyon Martin and Nene wound up with 15 and 14 points, respectively.
Game Two will take place at the Staples Center Thursday night at 6:00 p.m. Pacific.