for this game

Bryant leads Lakers past Nuggets, back to finals

May 30, 2009 - 8:30 AM By ARNIE STAPLETON AP Sports Writer

DENVER(AP) -- The Los Angeles Lakers entered the Western Conference Finals drowsy, distressed and disjointed. Thanks to the Denver Nuggets, they're heading back to the NBA Finals with their old L.A. swag.

Behind Kobe Bryant's 35-point, 10-assist performance, the Lakers dispatched Carmelo Anthony and the pesky Nuggets with a 119-92 victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals on Friday night.

That set up half of the glamorous Kobe-LeBron matchup that Madison Ave. is hoping for, but LeBron James will have to lead Cleveland to two more wins over Orlando to keep it from being a Kobe-Superman pairing against Magic star Dwight Howard instead.

The Lakers are back in the finals for the second straight year and the 30th time overall.

Bryant suggested the Nuggets helped the Lakers play to their potential.

"Denver is a great team, very skilled at all positions," he said. "Strong inside. Strong on the perimeter. Huge problem for us. And because of that, we had to elevate our level as a unit. And if we didn't do that, we'd be going home early."

Instead, it's the Nuggets whose season ended early.

"Forget about tonight. Tonight wasn't Nuggets basketball," coach George Karl said.

At least not the brand the Nuggets had been playing this season - a season in which they became a true contender for the first time since 1985, back when they wore rainbow uniforms.

Before the game, Karl said all the talk about the officiating had obscured what was a pretty good series - at least until the finale.

"In a lot of ways, we've helped them put their pieces back together and they've helped us grow up faster," he said.

The Nuggets still have some growing to do.

"I thought we were the better team," Kenyon Martin said. "But we're not moving on."

Karl likes the Lakers in the finals no matter if it's Kobe-LeBron or Kobe-Superman.

"I saw little cracks in the Lakers and somehow we've cemented those cracks back up, and I think they're the best team right now in the NBA," he said.

Bryant wasn't a one-man band. He got plenty of scoring help from Trevor Ariza, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom as the Lakers shot 57.3 percent from the field.

These Lakers, who are seeking the franchise's 15th title, are a more grizzled group - but also more bruised and battered - than the one that fell to Boston in the finals last year. Instead of cruising through the West this time, the Lakers survived an arduous seven-game semifinal series against Houston and another test against Denver.

"We weren't pushed and tested (last year) the way that we have been in the Houston series and now the series against Denver," Derek Fisher said. "At least theoretically, we're more prepared to play against teams that are physical or extremely athletic."

The finals begin Thursday, at Los Angeles if Orlando wins, and at Cleveland if the Cavaliers prevail.

Anthony led the Nuggets with 25 points and J.R. Smith added 24, but Denver trailed for all but a few seconds and never mounted a serious charge after halftime.

Odom and Gasol both scored 20 points and Ariza had 17, and the Lakers made all 24 of their free throws and were 9 of 16 on 3s.

The Lakers might very well have been swept by the energetic Nuggets if veterans Anthony Carter and Martin hadn't botched inbounds passes in the final seconds of Games 1 and 3, respectively.

Bryant didn't wait for the fourth quarter Friday night to give the Nuggets, who had posted eight postseason blowouts, a taste of their own medicine. He scored 11 points in a decisive 21-7 run that gave the Lakers a 53-40 halftime lead that never was threatened.

Chauncey Billups, whose acquisition from Detroit for Allen Iverson in early November, transformed his hometown Nuggets from afterthoughts to contenders, said the Nuggets' inexperience on this stage cost them dearly.

"Obviously today is a tough day in losing," Billups said. "But it's been absolutely the best year I've been a part of outside of winning the championship in '04, me coming home, me being a proud Denver kid all my life."

Notes: Nene broke his left forearm in the fourth quarter and will wear a splint for 3-4 weeks. ... This was the Nuggets' eighth consecutive loss in a playoff elimination game. ... Bryant averaged 34 points in the series.


AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed.

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