Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are heading back to the NBA Finals after dispatching the pesky Nuggets with a 119-92 victory in Game 6 last night in Denver.
Bryant had 35 points and 10 assists and got plenty of scoring help from Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as the Lakers shot 57.3 percent from the field to avoid having to play a Game 7 in the Western Conference finals back at the Staples Center.
They will finally get some much-needed rest after playing every other day for a grueling 2 weeks.
These Lakers, who are headed to their record 30th NBA Finals and are seeking their 15th title, are a more grizzled group - but also more bruised and battered - than the one that fell to Boston in the Finals last year.
"Now we're in a place where we didn't get the job accomplished last year," Bryant said. "Hopefully we will this time."
Instead of cruising through the West this time, the Lakers survived an arduous, seven-game semifinal series against Houston and a physical test against Denver.
"It's been a physical march all the way back to the Finals. Every series has been tough," Bryant said.
The Lakers will face either Orlando or Cleveland in the Finals.
The Magic lead, 3-2, and can clinch the Eastern Conference finals tonight at home in Game 6 and prevent the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James final that has basketball fans and corporate sponsors atwitter.
The finals begin Thursday, at Los Angeles if Orlando wins, and at Cleveland if the Cavaliers prevail.
Carmelo Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points and J.R. Smith added 24, but Denver trailed for all but a few seconds and never mounted a serious charge after halftime, although they kept hitting three-pointers.
This was the Nuggets' eighth consecutive loss in a playoff elimination game.
Odom and Gasol both scored 20 points and Ariza had 17, and the Lakers made all 24 of their free throws.
"We are really tough to beat because we're using all our weapons, not focusing on Kobe or myself," said Gasol, who had 12 rebounds and six assists. "We have a really good team and need to use everybody. That is how we are going to win it."
The Lakers might very well have been swept by the energetic Nuggets if veterans Anthony Carter and Kenyon Martin hadn't botched inbounds passes in the final seconds of Games 1 and 3, respectively.
Bryant didn't wait for the fourth quarter last night to give the Nuggets, who had posted eight postseason blowouts, a taste of their own medicine.
He scored 11 points in a decisive 21-7 that gave the Lakers a 53-40 halftime lead, took the buzz out of the Pepsi Center and the air out of the Nuggets.
"We had the effort and the execution to match," Bryant said. "It took us a while to really get a feel for the team, just how to take advantage of the defense. We saw something how they were playing us and we executed extremely well."
Bryant started his run with two free throws on a questionable whistle on Martin, then hit a jumper over Smith. After Ariza's three-pointer, Bryant made baskets over Anthony from the left and right corners on the Lakers' next two possessions, then capped the run with a dagger - a three-pointer with 4.1 seconds left following Gasol's offensive rebound.
The Nuggets trimmed their deficit to 79-67 but the Lakers replied with a 9-0 run to restore their stranglehold. *