DENVER - Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are heading back to the NBA Finals after dispatching the pesky Denver Nuggets with a 119-92 victory in Game 6 last night at the Pepsi Center.
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 Game 7 of the Western Conference finals back at the Staples Center.
They finally will get much-needed rest after playing every other day for a grueling two weeks.
These Lakers, who are headed to their record 30th NBA Finals and are seeking their 15th title, are an older 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, three games to two, and can clinch the Eastern Conference finals tonight at home in Game 6 and prevent the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James matchup 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 the Nuggets 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 well have been swept by the energetic Nuggets had veterans Anthony Carter and Kenyon Martin not 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 run that gave the Lakers a 53-40 halftime lead, taking 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 in 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 remaining after Gasol's offensive rebound.