Bryant scored 14 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, almost single-handedly fighting off a challenge from J.R. Smith and the emotionally charged Nuggets, to boost the Lakers past Denver, 107-101, and on to the Western Conference semifinals.
L.A. started Game 4 strong, with Pau Gasol scoring 18 of his 21 points and Bryant scoring 15 in the first half to send the Purple and Gold into the locker room with a 64-54 lead. But the Lakers got a surprise after intermission as the Nuggets buckled down and held Kobe & Co. to 15 third-quarter points -- their lowest-scoring 12 minutes of the postseason.
In the meantime, Smith was putting together the best playoff game of his four-year career. Smith hit all but one of the Nuggets' four 3-pointers and tallied nine points in the fourth quarter, at one point trading treys with Bryant, to lead Denver with 26 points.
But as the old song goes, you don't tug on Superman's cape or pull the mask off the Lone Ranger -- or challenge "Black Mamba" down the stretch.
No matter which defender George Karl threw at No. 24 and no matter how well each stayed on him, Bryant came up with the bucket.
The loss set several unfortunate milestones for the Nuggets, the most disappointing of which is falling in the first round for the fifth consecutive season. Denver hasn't made it past the first round since upsetting the Karl-coached Seattle SuperSonics in 1994. This first-round defeat marked the first time a team led by Karl has been swept in a best-of-seven series. Denver is the first 50-win team to be swept out of the first round of the playoffs since the Memphis Grizzlies fell in four to the San Antonio Spurs in 2004.
The Lakers are the only team that will close out the first round undefeated -- and so unsullied, now awaits the winner of the Jazz-Rockets series.
Marcus Camby's NBA.com Blog