LOS ANGELES – So much for all that confidence the Denver Nuggets had built up during their two impressive wins against the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this season.
The defending NBA champions picked up on the playoff vibe inside Staples Center on Sunday and got things back to normal, despite a poor-shooting effort from Kobe Bryant.
Lamar Odom scored nine of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and grabbed 12 rebounds, helping the Lakers overcame an 11-point third-quarter deficit and pull out a 95-89 victory against the team they knocked off in last year’s Western Conference finals. Pau Gasol added 15 points and 14 rebounds.
“It was nice to be in somewhat of a pressure-cooker,” Bryant said. “It’s been two years now where we’ve beaten them in the postseason, so I’m sure they’re fed up. They played with a lot of energy and intensity, and we had to step up against them. It was a playoff type of intensity.”
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Ron Artest added 17 points and tied a season high with six steals for the Lakers, who trail the Cavaliers by one game for the league’s best record. They lead Denver by 51/2 games for the Western Conference lead.
“They slowed our offense down,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “They picked up the pressure on us in the second half and we didn’t have the perseverance to pass the ball or penetrate before the pressure came. Our whole thing with Kobe was to try to plug him and keep him away from the rim and off the free throw line. We got that done pretty much the whole game.”
Bryant was just 3 for 17 from the field, finishing with 14 points and 12 assists. He was 1 for 9 during the first three quarters – the only field goal coming on a layup with 5:37 left in the opening period.
“God knows I love the triangle (offense), but I kind of had to get into a playoff mode a little bit today – just put the ball in my hands and let me make the decisions. But I missed a lot of shots,” Bryant said. “My jumper was off. So I’ve got to get back in and work on it so it’s consistent again, after being off for a long time.”
Carmelo Anthony scored 21 points for Denver before fouling out for the second time this season with 2:13 to play and the Nuggets down by four.
“They did a great job of trying to keep the ball out of my hands and denied me every chance they got,” Anthony said. “They were much more aggressive in the second half and made adjustments to what we were doing.”
Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who picked up two fouls 57 seconds apart during the first 2 minutes and went to the bench, didn’t get his third until he fouled Chauncey Billups behind the 3-point line with 51/2 minutes to play. Billups made all three free throws to tie the score at 82. But the Nuggets did not make a field goal over the final 4:10, ending their three-game winning streak.
Kenyon Martin finished with six points in 36 minutes. He missed Friday night’s 107-102 win over Detroit because of a bruised left knee, the same one that forced him to miss two games earlier this month because of tendinitis.
Martin committed three fouls and two turnovers before making his first field goal with 8:37 left in the third quarter, giving the Nuggets a 54-50 lead after the Lakers had rallied from a 13-point deficit in the first half.
This was the first meeting this season in which both teams had their regular starting lineups intact. On Nov. 3 at Denver, the Nuggets ended a six-game winning streak by the Lakers. In the second meeting on Feb. 5 at Staples Center, Billups compensated for the absence of the injured Anthony by equaling a career high with 39 points in a 126-113 win that snapped an eight-game winning streak by the Lakers.
“Toward the end of the season, you need games like this to start firing you up toward a playoff type of consistency,” Karl said. “I think with teams that have won championships and have been there more consistently, there’s more confidence to be able to turn the switch on.”