Bryant leads Lakers back to NBA Finals
Kobe Bryant scored 35 points and dished out 10 assists, both game highs, to carry his Los Angeles Lakers to a 119-92 victory Friday night that sent the Denver Nuggets packing and L.A. back to the NBA Finals for the second straight year.
Bryant was coolly efficient in the surprisingly bloodless Game 6 win in the Mile High City, making 12 of 20 shots from the field and all nine of his free-throw tries while turning the ball over just once.
The virtuoso performance was too much for a Nuggets team that had designs on an upset after splitting the first four games of the Western Conference final.
But Bryant scored a team-high 22 in Game 5 to help the Lakers regain control of the series, and he made sure his team finished the job Friday night with help from sidekicks Pau Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds), Lamar Odom (20 points) and Trevor Ariza (17 points).
"We had the effort and the execution to match," Bryant said. "It took us a while to really get a feel for the [Nuggets] — just how to take advantage of the defence. We saw something how they were playing us and we executed extremely well."
A year after they fell in six games to the Boston Celtics, the Lakers again find themselves in position to claim their first championship since 2002, when Bryant helped the team to its third in a row. The only thing standing in their way this time is the winner of the Eastern final between LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic. Orlando leads 3-2 and will host Game 6 on Saturday night.
"Now we're in a place where we didn't get the job accomplished last year," said Bryant, who hasn't won an NBA title without ex-teammate Shaquille O'Neal at his side. "Hopefully we will this time."
Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony capped a breakthrough playoff campaign with a team-best 25 points, and guard J.R. Smith added 24. Point guard Chauncey Billups, who jump-started Denver's season after arriving via a November trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit, added 10 points and nine assists.
"Don't think about what happened for the last 2½ hours," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "There was too much good in this season to not celebrate."
The Lakers ran out to a 25-20 lead through the first quarter thanks in part to a pair of three-pointers by Ariza, who finished the period with 10 points.
By halftime the lead had grown to 53-40, with Bryant boasting a game-high 18 points, including a triple that punctuated L.A.'s 9-1 run to end the half. The 2007-08 NBA MVP also showed off his defensive chops, swatting away Anthony's layup attempt just before the buzzer.
Denver's inability to get going made for an anticlimactic second half. After Bryant put the Lakers up by 20 on a fallaway jumper with about 2:42 left in the third quarter, the Nuggets managed to pare their deficit to 12 on Linas Kleiza's three-point with 1:16 to go.
But L.A. quickly quashed any potential rally, and held the Nuggets at arm's length until the final horn.