Tomorrow’s game story tonight …
Kobe Bryant swished one 3-pointer and then another and then another.
Suddenly, the Lakers had a chance to win where none existed moments earlier. All their missed shots and misplaced confidence was forgotten with three electric trips down the Staples Center court late Tuesday night.
Then, just as quickly, the cavernous arena went silent. Bryant could not rally the Lakers past the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series. He got them close, but their deficit was too great to make up.
After squandering almost all of a 15-point fourth-quarter lead, the Nuggets held on for a 102-99 victory and forced the Lakers to return to Denver for Game 6 on Thursday night. Game 7, if necessary, would be played Saturday at Staples Center.
The Lakers lead the best-of-7 series 3-2.
Bryant scored 43 points on 14-for-32 shooting, including 5 of 11 from beyond the 3-point arc. He found his touch only after the Lakers stumbled and bumbled their way to a double-digit deficit after a lackluster start to their first try at closing out the Nuggets.
“I wouldn’t say our energy kicked in, in the fourth quarter,” Bryant said. “I almost bailed us out, that’s what happened. it wasn’t the energy. I just started making shots left and right that got us back in the ballgame.
“That’s not something we can use to rely on to get us to the championship. We all have to step up and we all have to contribute and we all have to play with that kind of energy and sense of urgency.”
Denver played with all the fire and passion that was lacking in the Lakers’ game. The Nuggets couldn’t put away the Lakers only because they couldn’t stop Bryant in the fourth quarter, when he scored 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting.
Bryant’s flurry of 3s got the Lakers within 98-96 with 59.1 seconds remaining. After he and Denver guard Andre Miller traded misses, Al Harrington sank a free throw to give the Nuggets a 99-96 lead with 28.6 seconds left.
Bryant missed a 3, but after the Nuggets’ Ty Lawson made a free throw, the Lakers’ Ramon Sessions sank a 3 from the right wing to make it 100-99 with 14 seconds left. The Lakers had one more chance after Miller made two free throws.
Actually, they had two more shots at tying the score.
Bryant missed a 3 from the left wing and Sessions missed a 3 from the right.
That’s when Staples Center finally went silent.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. “We’re sitting in a good spot. We just made it tough on ourselves.”
Actually, Andrew Bynum said Monday he believed that close-out games were easy. What he forgot to mention is that they’re only easy if you play well.
The Lakers played like they thought they could just roll the ball onto the court and the Nuggets would run away in terror. Nuggets coach George Karl called Bynum’s comments bulletin board material.
Brown agreed when a reporter recalled Karl’s statement.
“If a guy wants to say that, he’s got to back it up,” Brown said.
Bynum scored 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds. But he couldn’t stop Denver’s JaVale McGee from swinging a game in the Nuggets’ favor with his hyperkinetic play around the basket for the second time in this series.
McGee scored 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting and took a team-leading 14 rebounds in a reserve role. He scored on a variety of dunks, hook shots and putbacks that had Bynum and fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol shaking their heads in frustration.
“Give McGee credit,” Brown said. “He was the difference in the game.”
Miller led the Nuggets with 24 points, and Arron Afflalo added 19 points.
Bryant, Bynum and Matt Barnes, who had 11 points, were the only Lakers to score in double figures. The Lakers made only 35 of 90 shots (38.9 percent). They missed 30 of their first 45 shots and trailed by 49-43 at halftime.
To be sure, the Lakers’ start wasn’t as poor as their no-show in the first half of Game 3 on Friday, and given all that went haywire, they could have been in far worse shape than to be down by only six points at halftime.
After all, they were down by 24 points early in the second quarter in Game 3. But they recovered nicely and won Game 4 with a fourth-quarter burst that included key 3-pointers from guards Sessions and Steve Blake.
The Lakers have closed out the opposition on the first try in 11 of their last 12 times since 2008. They also have won 33 of their last 34 series when having a chance to close out their opponent at any point. They blew a 3-1 lead to Phoenix in 2006.