Bryant Leads Lakers Back to the NBA Finals

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009

DENVER, May 29 -- It was too easy last season, the way Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers cruised through the Western Conference after acquiring Pau Gasol, rarely getting challenged until they reached the NBA Finals. Upon their arrival, the Boston Celtics tossed them around and roughed them up for six games, culminating with an embarrassing 39-point loss in Game 6.

The Lakers spent an entire season focused on making a return, redeeming themselves, and possibly end a seven-year championship drought. With a 119-92 annihilation of the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on Friday night, the Lakers will have an opportunity to accomplish that feat and win the 15th title in franchise history.

Bryant had 35 points and 10 assists to lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals for the 30th time and the sixth time in his career. Coach Phil Jackson will make his third attempt to claim his 10th NBA championship and break his tie with Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history. Pau Gasol and reserve Lamar Odom both contributed 20 points, Trevor Ariza had 17 and Luke Walton added 10 off the bench, as the Lakers became the first runner-up to get back since the New Jersey Nets in 2003.

"I hope we can do better than we did last year," said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, whose team has lost its past two trips to the finals against Boston and Detroit.

Going practically unchallenged through 15 games in the first three rounds last season, the Lakers were repeatedly tested this postseason, needing 18 games. After a physically grueling five-game series against Utah, the Lakers were pushed to the brink by an undermanned Houston team that played the final four games of a seven-game series without all-star center Yao Ming.

"By far, by far," Bryant said, when asked if the journey was tougher. "Much, much tougher. Much more physical. Mentally challenging for us. But we gained valuable experience, went through a roller coaster of emotions. Those are the things that make you tougher."

Jackson said he finally saw the Lakers resemble the talented team that many picked to win the championship at the start of the season.

"We saved our best game for last here," Jackson said. "Tonight was a game where we played at the highest level. I thought our collective energy was good. I thought our collective intelligence was good."

The reward for closing out Denver at the first opportunity is that the Lakers will have six days to rest before they play again. They will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday if Orlando is able to defeat Cleveland, but will start on the road if the Cavaliers can become the ninth team in NBA history to come back after trailing 3-1 in a best-of-seven series.

With a collection of players with hard luck histories and countless tattoos, the Nuggets reached the conference finals for the first time in 24 years. Chauncey Billups helped change the mindset of the team after arriving to play for his hometown team in November and Carmelo Anthony matured into more than a scorer in his sixth season.

Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points on his 25th birthday. "This is a terrible birthday present," Anthony said. "We played one of the worst games in the whole playoffs."

Denver crushed New Orleans and Dallas in just 10 games, and Coach George Karl kept saying that the Nuggets were the better team this series. The Nuggets were certainly rich with talent, but outside of one commanding 19-point win in Game 4, they never could overcome the mental lapses to prove it. From poor inbounds passes in their first two losses, to a second half breakdown in Game 5 in Los Angeles.

On Friday, the Nuggets continued to hurt themselves. At the start of the third period, Bryant shot an air ball on a three-pointer, but the Lakers got a point on the possession after Dahntay Jones picked up a technical foul for yelling at official Joey Crawford. Then after cutting a 20-point deficit down to 12 with 1:16 left in the third period, Denver again awarded the Lakers four more points with silly fouls. Kenyon Martin fell down then grabbed Sasha Vujacic by the leg to keep him from running. Then, Billups tried an alley-oop pass to Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith fouled Vujacic after the Lakers gathered the rebound.

"Every playoff loss has a very heavy anger," Karl said. "And for about five, eight, 10 days, we had people thinking we were the best team in the Western Conference. I think they've proven that they are the best team in the Western Conference."

After Denver took a 33-32 lead in the second period, the Lakers closed out the second period on 21-7 run and held Denver to just one field goal over the final seven minutes. ^ Carmelo Anthony made two free throws to bring Denver within 44-39, but Bryant hit back-to-back long jumpers, then Derek Fisher drove inside to feed ^ Pau Gasol for a dunk. Bryant then added a crushing three-pointer from the right corner to give the Lakers a 53-40 lead. "I think Jesus would've had trouble covering him," ^ George Karl said of Bryant.

^ For good measure, Bryant sprinted down the floor to reject Anthony's layup with his left hand as time expired.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company