Bryant's 3 gives Lakers series lead
DENVER - Trevor Ariza's clutch steals are punching a dagger in Denver's season just as much as Kobe Bryant's big baskets.
For the second time in three games, Ariza stole an inbounds pass in the final minute to help Los Angeles beat the Nuggets, this time 103-97 at the Pepsi Center for a 2-1 lead that restored the Lakers' home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.
Ariza, whose steal of Anthony Carter's lazy lob sealed the Lakers' win in the series opener, sliced in front of Carmelo Anthony to swipe Kenyon Martin's inbounds pass with the Lakers clinging to a 2-point lead with 36 seconds left. Anthony fouled out to prevent the breakaway basket and Ariza sank both free throws for a 99-95 lead.
"Trevor, he's very crafty, he's long, he's fast, he's quick and he's a ball hog," said Bryant, who scored 41 points. "He does a good job of reading those things. It's a great defensive play."
As he did in the first game, Lamar Odom guarded the inbounds, only this time it wasn't the shortest player on the team he was facing, but the 6-foot-9-inch Martin trying to get the ball in over the Lakers' 6-10 forward.
"He's long, look at him," Sasha Vujacic said of Odom. "He's very long. He's athletic. He's got eyes behind his ears. He knows how to jump all around the ball."
Hounded, Martin called a timeout, but on the redo, he wasn't so lucky as he led Anthony too much with the pass and Ariza snatched away both the ball and Denver's shot at a win for the second time in five nights.
"It was kind of deja vu from Game 1," Anthony said.
Anthony scored 21 points but just 3 after halftime, and Denver lost at home for the first time since March 9.
"I don't really think they did anything different tonight. But I missed some easy shots," said Anthony, who had averaged 35 points in his previous five games but went just 4 for 13.
Denver led most of the game but was done in by poor decisions and a failure to keep its composure. The Nuggets shot just 5 for 27 on 3-pointers and committed three technical fouls.
Denver took a 79-71 lead into the fourth quarter on J.R. Smith's bucket. Vujacic, who had just hit a 3-pointer of his own, his first points of the game, nearly stole Chauncey Billups's pass, but Smith snared it, spun and swished the 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer and he fell to the floor with the crowd going crazy.
Caught up in the moment, Smith jumped up jawing at Vujacic and was T'd up.
After Bryant swished the technical free throw, Denver would miss its first nine shots of the fourth quarter, finally putting a shot through the hoop on Martin's dunk with 6:34 left.
"I rank this right up there with some of the biggest road wins we've had since I've been a Laker," Bryant said. "Because, in the past we always had guys that had a lot of experience. Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Harper, they've all been through this before. For our guys this is brand new. Last year we weren't tested like this. And it goes a long way for us as a ballclub."