DENVER — No team goes from frantic, desperate, out-of-its-mind in trouble to cool quite like the Lakers.
No player goes from heave-up-a-shot absurd to pound-his-chest fearless quite like Kobe Bryant. Eventually, it starts to make sense.
Seeking to come out of the absence of Shaquille O'Neal with something approaching aplomb, the Lakers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 87-86, Wednesday night at Pepsi Center. Bryant hit the big, late, fade-away jump shot as the 24-second clock died and the Nuggets failed to score in the final two minutes 31 seconds.
The Lakers are 3-2 without their all-planet center, and have some expectation for his return from the agony of two sore toes on Friday night against the Phoenix Suns. They are 22-6 overall, despite the recent injuries to O'Neal and Bryant, in part because of games just like Wednesday's, in part because they are a point better even when they don't play very well at all.
And still, Bryant shook his head, grinned crooked, and wondered about the fuss.
"It don't think it really matters, because we aren't going to play without Shaquille in the playoffs," he said. "It doesn't matter, because our team is with Shaquille . We're going to win a championship with Shaquille . That's the bottom line."
So, they go from mundane to tears rolling out of the corners of their eyes in about three minutes, and Bryant wouldn't stop shooting until they won, and Rick Fox made the defensive play of the game, and it was all enough. And Nick Van Exel just dropped his head, in disgust. And Mitch Richmond just shook his, in amazement. And Mark Madsen rushed from the bench and grabbed Bryant from behind in a bear hug, because that's how tense it got, and how jubilant they were, even trying to be cool about it.
"He can overcome anything," Richmond said of Bryant, who scored 22 of his 28 points in the second half. "That's how he plays. It is rare, but it's having that thing, that hating-to-lose thing, the feeling like you can get out of anything."
The Lakers scored only 14 points in the fourth quarter, but they scored the last five. Bryant had two shots blocked in the last 95 seconds, but made three field goals in the last three minutes.
It was enough, partly, because it was against the Nuggets. But it was enough, too, because that's what they needed, and the Lakers can be quite adept at playing a point better than absolutely necessary.
"We were lucky," Laker Coach Phil Jackson said.
There was that, too.
The Nuggets scored their last points on an eight-foot runner by Van Exel, who, along with fellow guards Avery Johnson and Voshon Lenard nearly beat the Lakers by themselves. Avery scored nine points in the fourth quarter, most on pick-and-rolls that rubbed off Derek Fisher or Lindsey Hunter. Van Exel had 25 points and Lenard had 22.
Van Exel's shot gave the Nuggets an 86-82 lead with 2:31 remaining. The Lakers would need five.
So Bryant went to the low post and scored on a six-foot fadeaway in the lane to come within 86-84, and then Fisher drew a charge in the lane on the other end against Van Exel.
Bryant missed a jumper, gathered the rebound, and fed Samaki Walker, who missed the dunk but was fouled and made one free throw. The Lakers were within 86-85.
Van Exel then missed an 18-footer, a terrible shot, leading to one last offensive possession for the Lakers. Bryant had a short jumper blocked by Calbert Cheaney, chased the loose ball, ripped it away from Fisher and, with the shot clock approaching zero, made a 20-footer from the left wing. The Lakers led, 87-86, and Bryant returned up the floor banging his right fist on his chest.
"Oh, man, what can I say, man?" Bryant said. "Shot clock was low, I just went and got it. All I see is the ball and the basket."
Once he realized whose hands were on the other half of the basketball, Fisher let go.
"He always gives it a chance," Fisher said.
The Nuggets' final possession lasted nearly 30 seconds. They missed twice, and had the ball but failed to get one last shot when Fox stuck out his hand and tied up a penetrating Van Exel. While Van Exel won the jump ball, time expired before the Nuggets could get another.
"It's crazy, it's intense," Bryant said of the final half-minute. "We started fighting. We started fighting for every ball. We played a scrappy ballgame and that's why we won."
In perhaps his season's best all-around game, Fox had 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Walker had 11 rebounds and 14 points. The Lakers made just 39% of their attempts, but had enough, barely.
"Man, I think we're going to be dreaming about pick-and-rolls," Hunter said. "So many pick-and-rolls, setting all those crazy screens. But, good teams win like that, and force things to happen their way. It's fun when it turns out your way."
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