LOS ANGELES - Kobe Bryant scored 40 points to lift the Los Angeles Lakers to a 105-103 victory over Denver on Tuesday in game one of the National Basketball Association Western Conference finals.
Bryant's tally included six free throws in the last 30 seconds as the Lakers triumphed despite trailing much of the contest. Bryant scored 18 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter and he grabbed the last rebound that secured the victory.
"He was a scoring opportunity for us tonight," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of Bryant. "We had very little else going on for us tonight. He muscled his way through that game." Spain's Pau Gasol added 13 points with 14 rebounds while Derek Fisher chipped in 13 points for the Lakers, who erased a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit. Carmelo Anthony scored 39 points for his fourth straight playoff game of at least 30 points for Denver.
Chauncey Billups added 18 and Kenyon Martin had 15 for the Nuggets, who hadn't played since finishing off the Mavericks in five games last Wednesday.
"We lost out on a great opportunity to steal this game," veteran point guard Billups said after the Nuggets led by as many as 13. "We played probably good enough, but I think we lost the game on poor free throw shooting. We missed 12 free throws and it comes back we lost by two points."
The Lakers were taken to seven games by the Rockets in the last round, finally advancing on Sunday.
"We just had to push through," Bryant said of the 48-hour turnaround. "We didn't come out with the kind of energy we wanted. Guys were fatigued, a little tired."
The Lakers host game two of the best-of-seven series tonight. Two free throws from Bryant gave Los Angeles a 101-99 lead with 30 seconds to play.
Trevor Ariza then stole an inbounds pass by Anthony Carter, who was pressured by Lamar Odom on the pass intended for Billups.
The Lakers then ran the clock out to 10 seconds and Bryant was fouled on a drive to the basket and made two more free throws.
"We were able to get some pressure on the inbounds and they were close to a five-second call," Odom said. "Trevor did a great job of anticipating the pass and making that steal."
"That was a huge play for us," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
Billups hit a 3-pointer to pull the Nuggets to 103-102 with five seconds to play, but Anthony then fouled Bryant - who sank two more free throws.
"They're a great team," said Nuggets coach George Karl. "They've got the best closer in the sport. We didn't do enough."