LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant offered himself up as bait and the Denver Nuggets bit. That freed up Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol on the inside, where the Lakers’ big men dominated.
With Bryant luring double coverage then passing to his teammates, the Lakers owned the fourth quarter in a 103-94 victory Wednesday night that gave them a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.
Bryant scored 22 points – on just 13 shots – Odom had 19 points and 14 rebounds despite an aching lower back and Gasol added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“It was a big gamble for me coming in, but I wanted to change my approach this game and be more of a decoy,” Bryant said after adding eight assists, several out of double-teams in the fourth quarter. “The past couple games they really were loading to my side and I figured I could be a decoy and try to give chances to my teammates.”
Game 6 is Friday in Denver, where the Lakers lost Game 4 by 19 points.
“That place is going to be rocking and rolling,” Bryant said. “We have to stay focused and poised and try to cut them up. Be cold-blooded, go out there and execute.”
Carmelo Anthony scored 31 points, hitting 12 of 13 free throws, and Kenyon Martin and Chauncey Billups added 12 points each for the Nuggets.
The teams were tied after the first, second and third quarters for just the fourth time in NBA playoff history.
So it all came down to the final 12 minutes.
Bryant, Odom and Gasol teamed for all but seven of the Lakers’ 27 points in the fourth. They opened on an 11-0 run for their first lead of the second half and it was capped by Shannon Brown’s jumper that beat the shot clock.
“He came in, gave us a huge spark and that’s what you need,” Bryant said of Brown. “It’s about who controls momentum.”
The Nuggets used a 13-6 run to close to 93-89. Linas Kleiza scored seven straight and Anthony had six in the spurt.
But then the Lakers regained control and finished off the victory. They improved to 20-0 in Game 5s at home when a series is tied 2-2.
“The games that we’ve lost, they had an advantage on the inside,” Anthony said. “The games that we’ve won, we had an advantage. We had to go to a smaller lineup tonight and they kept their big lineup on the court. That kind of hurt us a little bit. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping our big men out of foul trouble.”
Anthony hit a jumper to get Denver to 96-91 with 1:24 remaining. But the Nuggets went cold from the field over the final 3:38, while the Lakers capitalized at the line. Los Angeles outscored Denver 10-5 in that span, including making six of eight free throws.
This time, it was Denver coach George Karl’s turn to complain about the officiating. Lakers coach Phil Jackson and his organization were fined $25,000 each for griping after Game 4.
“I thought they got the benefit of the whistle,” Karl said. “Every player in my locker room is frustrated, from guards to big guys. Gasol goes after at least 20 jump shots, 20 shots to the rim and gets one foul; our big guys have 16. Nene has six fouls, three or four of them don’t exist.”
Denver returns home needing a victory to send the series back to L.A. for a Game 7 on Sunday.