LOS ANGELES (AP) Nobody was feeling luckier than Kobe Bryant a day after rescuing the Los Angeles Lakers from certain defeat against the Denver Nuggets in their Western Conference finals opener.
"We just kind of got away with one,'' he said, grinning. "It happens sometimes.''
Bryant scored 40 points, including six free throws in the final 30 seconds Tuesday night, to give the Lakers a 105-103 victory after being outplayed most of the game.
Call it stealing one at home.
"It was one of those gutty performances that you have to have throughout the postseason,'' Bryant said after practice Wednesday. "We had everything working against us - mistakes, loose balls, bobbling balls out of bounds. It just seemed like one of those nights, but we managed to pull through it.''
Game 2 is Thursday night at Staples Center. The Nuggets have lost 11 consecutive playoff games to the Lakers, including a first-round sweep last season.
"We played 46 1/2 solid minutes, just the last minute or so got away from us. But we can take a lot of things from it that we did well,'' Kenyon Martin said. "We just need to eliminate some of the little mistakes and go from there. That's the beauty of it, there's another game tomorrow.''
Bryant was forced into playing both ends of the floor after teammate Trevor Ariza couldn't stop Denver's Carmelo Anthony, who owned a lackluster history against the Lakers until exploding for 39 points.
Bryant started out defending Chauncey Billups (18 points), then took on J.R. Smith (eight points) before sliding over late to Anthony, his U.S. Olympic teammate. Forget asking coach Phil Jackson for permission to change defensive assignments, either.
"We have the type of relationship where I just do it,'' Bryant said. "Whatever it took to win the game, I had to do. It was fun.''
Anthony had a breakout game, going 14 of 20 from the floor, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range, 7 of 8 from the line, with six rebounds and four assists.
"He's been phenomenal,'' Billups said. "For a while he fell out of that whole LeBron (James), D-Wade, Melo talk and I'm happy that he's back where he should be. He's led his team to the Western Conference finals and he's been the best player on our team all year.''
But Anthony doesn't consider himself the kind of one-man show Bryant had to be for the Lakers.
"I don't really think it's about me putting up numbers,'' Anthony said. "I'm not going to beat the Lakers by myself. Chauncey's not going to beat the Lakers by himself. We need our bench, our X-factor guys J.R. (Smith), LK (Linas Kleiza) and Birdman (Chris Andersen). We need everybody like we've been doing it so far.''
Smith sprained his right knee in the game, but he said it was better Wednesday.
"I'm definitely going to play,'' he said. "I'll be ready for tomorrow.''
Ariza referred to Anthony's defensive domination of him as "getting served.'' But Bryant expects Ariza will come better prepared Thursday.
"He doesn't back down,'' Bryant said. "Carmelo had his way with him in the first game. He's not the only one who's had his way with him, so he shouldn't feel bad about it.''
A day later, the Nuggets were feeling they outplayed the Lakers most of the way but had nothing to show for it.
"Our heads are still high. We're still standing tall, we're still confident,'' Anthony said. "We did everything but win the game. We can take that as a good sign. We're going to respond, I guarantee you we respond.''
The Lakers' big men will be looking to make a stand, something 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum didn't accomplish in Game 1. They were outscored 29-19 by the shorter duo of Martin and Nene. Bynum was limited by foul trouble, and Gasol had four fouls.
"Just on defense alone we can be more productive,'' Lamar Odom said. "We were lucky to kind of stay in that game. We know we can play a lot better than we did.''
Denver's front line outmuscled Gasol, Bynum and Odom. In Game 2, Jackson expects Bynum's focus to be in the low post, while letting Gasol and Odom play away from the basket.
"He's got to be a power player in there and he's got to be a big guy that makes them feel small and uses his size against them,'' the coach said. "Pau and Lamar can be active enough to do things out on the floor to change the game up. They can pass the ball and dribble the ball. They have to be really mobile and have that attack idea.''
Denver coach George Karl seemingly took the loss harder than his players. He sat in silence for several seconds after being asked about the game. By Wednesday, though, the emotion of losing in the final seconds had dissipated.
"I like our chances if you give us a six-point lead with four minutes to go,'' he said. "I'll take our chances winning this series. I'll sign that contract tomorrow.''
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