LOS ANGELES(AP) In an inconsistent start to the Western Conference finals, Kobe Bryant was the steadying presence the Los Angeles Lakers needed.

He took over in the fourth quarter, finishing with 40 points, including six free throws in the final 30 seconds, to lift Los Angeles to a 105-103 win over the Denver Nuggets in the opener on Tuesday night after the Lakers trailed most of the game.

"Once I sensed we didn't have the energy, I had to take it upon myself to lead by example,'' he said. "It's just part of my responsibilities to this team.''

He did it even with an injury.

Bryant had the right ring finger on his shooting hand taped after the game. He dislocated it against Cleveland in January and had to have it popped back in place Tuesday.

"He was the scoring opportunity for us,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We had very little else going on. He muscled his way through.''

Pau Gasol added 13 points and 14 rebounds for the Lakers, who were down by seven in the fourth quarter. Gasol's two free throws tied the game for the last time at 99 before Bryant started his closing streak at the line, offsetting a 3-pointer by Chauncey Billups and a free throw by J.R. Smith.

Carmelo Anthony scored 39 points and Billups added 18 for the Nuggets, who hadn't played since taking care of Dallas in five games last Wednesday.

"There's no moral victories in playoff basketball,'' Denver coach George Karl said. "The next 48 hours are going to be difficult.''

Game 2 is Thursday at Staples Center. The Nuggets have lost 11 consecutive playoff games to the Lakers, including a first-round sweep last season.

Bryant, who was 9 for 9 from the line in the fourth quarter, made two for a 101-99 lead with 30 seconds left. Trevor Ariza stole the inbounds pass near midcourt and the Lakers were able to run the clock down to 10 seconds when Bryant made two more free throws.

"He threw the ball and gave me just enough air to go get it,'' Ariza said of Anthony Carter. "That's all it took.''

Billups hit a 3-pointer to get the Nuggets to 103-102 with 5 seconds left, but then Anthony fouled Bryant, who made his final two foul shots.

"They have the best closer in the sport and we didn't do enough,'' Karl said.

Smith made one free throw with 3.2 seconds left and missed the second intentionally. Bryant grabbed the game's last rebound.

"Any great player would love that moment, get the ball in their hands every time down the court and make something happen,'' Anthony said.

The Lakers were back in action 48 hours after closing out Houston in seven games in the conference semifinals.

"We won that game on energy and gutting it out,'' Jackson said. "They outmuscled us and put pressure on the passers. We talked about getting the game close enough to win it at the end. We got a couple stops that helped us.''

Denver led most of the game in its return to the conference finals for the first time in 24 years. But the Nuggets couldn't stop Bryant over the final 6:48, when he scored 15 points, including seven straight to help the Lakers improve to 7-1 at home in the playoffs. They are 8-0 this postseason when scoring 100 points.

"You get used to greatness,'' Lamar Odom said. "He was amazing. He wanted the ball. Kobe is always going to help you or bail you out more than he hurts you.''

The Lakers used a 9-0 run, including seven straight by Derek Fisher, to go up 70-66. From there, though, the Nuggets ended the third quarter on a 10-4 run to lead 76-74. Billups had five consecutive points, including a free throw after a technical foul on Bryant, in the spurt.

Bryant has five technicals in the playoffs. "I won't get another one,'' he vowed.

The Nuggets took a 13-point lead in the opening quarter, but hurt themselves by going 12 of 21 from the line in the half. Billups, who missed three free throws in the first two playoff series combined, missed his first three of the game.

"We missed out on a great opportunity to steal this game,'' he said. "We lose this game on our poor free throw shooting.''

Notes: Smith sprained his right knee and will be re-evaluated Wednesday. ... The Nuggets fell to 2-3 on the road in the playoffs. ... Denver F-G Linas Kleiza played despite a fracture on the tip of his right thumb.


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