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Art Garcia

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Raucous Denver crowd energizes Kobe in tough test

By Art Garcia,
Posted May 24 2009 10:01PM

DENVER -- Kobe Bryant enjoys the booing, the catcalls and the shouts not fit to print. He's heard it all in San Antonio and Phoenix and Utah and along the inhospitable road of Western Conference outposts. He's also heard the silence.

"It's a much better feeling," Bryant said of quieting enemy arenas, "than being at home and hearing the roar of the crowd."

Kobe needed to feed on that feeling, as his body threatened to give out Saturday night. The Lakers and Nuggets were entangled in their third straight game decided in the final minute, and last year's MVP was gasping for oxygen in the thin Mile-High air. (Watch a replay of Game 3 on NBA TV on Monday at 4 p.m. ET.)

So when he stepped to the line late in the fourth quarter nursing a slim lead, the venom of nearly 20,000 inside The Can proved more energizing than the energy drink he hawks. Bottle that.

"It really helped me, I've got to be honest with you," he insisted after the 103-97 victory that proved to be gut-check in so many ways. "I swear to you, because I couldn't feel my legs one bit, not at all. And when they started chanting that, it just reminded me of what we're playing for and where we're playing."

They were playing in a building where no one has come close to challenging the Nuggets during these Playoffs. But the Lakers are also playing for a return trip to The Finals and Kobe's fourth title. And while these high-stake circumstances were commonplace during his days wearing No. 8, he's yet to win the big one with No. 24 on his back.

Kobe acknowledges the relative inexperience of this collection of Lakers, even though they locked horns with Boston last June. Kobe reminded everyone the three-peat bunch had guys like Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Ron Harper. (What about Shaq?)

"They've all been through this stuff before," Bryant said. "For our guys, this is brand new. Last year we weren't tested like this."

The Lakers' march to the championship round last year took four, six and five games. Kobe isn't the only one with institutional knowledge. Derek Fisher, another old-timer, pulled the team together in a fourth-quarter huddle -- Denver led most of the period -- to deliver his own message of what was on the line.

"This is what it's about," Bryant said, rehashing Fish's appeal. "This is gut check. This is where you're tested. To be a champion, you have to respond."

Kobe, of course, did. His 41 points marked the third time in these Playoffs he's hit the 40-point marker and his 3-pointer over J.R. Smith with 1:09 left gave Los Angeles the lead for good. The degree of difficulty on the go-head was only heightened by Smith hitting Kobe on his shooting arm, forcing Bryant to put a little more oomph on the release.

"Had to kick a little more into it," Kobe explained.

That wasn't the only kick the Lakers got down the stretch, wrestling back the home-court edge in the series. For the second time in three games, Trevor Ariza has stolen a lazy inbounds pass intended for one of the Nuggets' top two guns in the final minute. Ariza swooped around Chauncey Billups with 30 seconds left in Game 1 to seal the L.A. win. He repeated the dramatics in Game 3, blowing past Carmelo Anthony with 37 seconds left and, adding insult to sloppiness, fouled Melo out in the process.

Ariza made the play Kobe's legs couldn't muster. Phil Jackson talked about Ariza's ability to read the situation and get to full speed in one step. True and true. Ariza, though, harked back to the team's overall will in turning the series around.

"Nobody on our team quit," said Ariza, one of only three Lakers in double figures with 16 points. "We didn't give up on the ball or none of that. We tried to fight all the way through."

The Lakers faced serious questions about their willingness to fight in the last round, going a full seven games against the depleted Rockets. Two blowouts late in that series in Houston formed the basis of that criticism. It also led many to believe the Nuggets would deliver two wins over Memorial Day weekend in the same dominating fashion they dispatched of New Orleans and Dallas.

Denver held the lead most of the night, but never held control in a game short on aesthetics. The Lakers couldn't hit free throws. The Nuggets never found their stroke beyond the arc. Melo, the scene-stealer out in Los Angeles, never got on track. Anthony battled foul trouble and Ariza, and finished with 21 points on 4-of-13 shooting after averaging 36.5 points in the first two games.

Maybe Melo does need to score 35 a night for Denver to have a chance.

"I don't really think they did anything different tonight," he said. "But I missed some easy shots. Open shots. Some of them were tough."

And with it, the Nuggets' charge just got tougher. Not only does Denver face its own "must win" on Monday night, the Nuggets will need to win at least another in Los Angeles to advance. It won't be easy, but it's not impossible.

Kobe would know. His personal postseason history added a new entry Saturday night, ranking the victory with some of the biggest road wins he's had since joining the Lakers. The new Lakers now have one to look back on, too.

"This means a lot," Bryant said, "and it goes a long way for us a ballclub."

If you have a question or comment for Art Garcia, send him an email.

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