The clock ticked as the Lakers faced a three-point deficit. Kobe Bryant kept the ball in his hands. And everyone knew he intended to shoot and try to tie the game.
He squared up behind the perimeter on the right side. Nuggets guard Andre Miller gave him a sliver of space. Bryant launched a 25-foot three-pointer that he said afterward "felt good." Though the shot hit back iron, Lakers guard Steve Blake grabbed the rebound and dished out to an open Ramon Sessions on the right side. His shot also clanged out as time expired.
That officially sealed the Lakers' 102-99 Game 5 loss Tuesday to the Denver Nuggets. It set up Game 6 Thursday at Denver instead of some rest before a West semifinals matchup with Oklahoma City. But Bryant hardly lamented those missed shots or even his short 27-foot three-point attempt as the Lakers trailed 99-96 with 20 seconds remaining. He instead openly wondered why he needed to manufacture 43 points on 14-of-32 shooting to give the Lakers a chance to close out their first-round series.
"I used to have a coach that said the basketball gods did not allow us to win this game today because we didn't deserve it," Bryant said, referring to Phil Jackson. "That's what I'll hang my hat on."
Despite the Lakers shooting 38.9% from the field, Bryant still tried changing the prophecy by tapping into his scoring instincts. He deadpanned that he adopted that mindset "probably when we're down 15 [points] with five minutes to go," but it even came before that. Bryant sliced the Lakers' 12-point deficit down to three late in the third quarter with a whole array of offensive moves. He drove through the lane, converting on two free throws and an open layup. Bryant sank a floating jumper. And he nailed a 27-foot three-pointer that cut Denver's lead to 66-63 with 3:03 remaining, prompting Nuggets Coach George Karl to call timeout.
The Lakers rewarded Bryant's strong offensive production by playing lazy on defense. After swiping Blake's pass, Nuggets guard Andre Miller set up JaVale McGee for an open dunk. The same thing happened after McGee drove to the baseline uncontested past Pau Gasol and slammed another one home. Miller then blew by Lakers forward Matt Barnes off a single dribble for a layup. And the Nuggets ended the third quarter with a 76-65 third-quarter lead after Corey Brewer made an open 17-footer.
"It wasn't an energy switch," Bryant said. "I started making shots left and right and got us back in the ball game. It can't be that. We all have to step up. We all have to contribute and we all have to play with that energy and sense of urgency."
Lakers Coach Mike Brown sensed that happening as the Lakers chipped away at a 15-point deficit with 6:35 remaining. Gasol, who only had nine points on four-of-11 shooting, made a rare sweeping hook shot and a 10-foot jumper. Bynum, who acknowledged struggling through double teams and failing to stop McGee defensively, finally attacked the basket by posting up for a layup and converting off a putback.
But Bryant's play itself largely led to the Lakers' rally by hitting four consecutive three-pointers and suddenly turning the 18,997 at Staples Center to cheer instead of boo.
"We played hard for the last six minutes of the game and we got back into it," Bynum said. "But it was too little, too late."
Yet, Bryant believes making those jumpers would've solved their problems. Regardless of the outcome, he contended following such a formula that relies on him wouldn't lead to an NBA title.
Said Bryant: "It turned into being a long night."