LOS ANGELES, (Reuters) – Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 38 points as the Los Angeles Lakers held off a late fightback by the Denver Nuggets to win 104-100 on Tuesday and take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference quarter-final series.
The Lakers, who had overpowered their opponents 103-88 in the series opener on Sunday, briefly led by 19 points with All-Star Bryant in sizzling form before the Nuggets clawed their way back to trail by just four with a little under two minutes left.
However, point guard Ramon Sessions gave the home team some welcome breathing space with a floating jump shot to put Los Angeles 100-94 ahead and they held on to maintain control in the best-of-seven series.
Sessions finished with 14 points while the two seven-footers, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, weighed in with 27 and 13 points respectively in front of a sell-out crowd at Staples Center.
Guard Ty Lawson led the way for the fast-paced but relatively inexperienced Nuggets with 25 points and forward Kenneth Faried contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds.
The series shifts to the high altitude of Denver for Game Three tomorrow and Game Four on Sunday.
“I wish the fight we showed tonight would have happened in Game One,” Nuggets coach George Karl told reporters. “Because of that, we’re down 2-0. If we would have fought like this in Game One, maybe we would have found a way to win Game Two.”
Lawson, who rebounded strongly from his mediocre form in the series opener with 17 points in the second half, paid tribute to the stellar play by 14-times All-Star Bryant.
“He was hitting tough shots,” he said of Bryant, who was 12-of-20 from the field. “We played better defense but he was on fire. Sometimes you can’t do anything about it when he’s hitting shots like that.”
The Lakers made a fast start, back-to-back slam dunks by Bynum putting them 12-3 up early in the first quarter and prompting applause from Hollywood actor Jack Nicholson as he stood up from his courtside seat.
Though the Nuggets levelled the score at 36-36 midway through the second period, Los Angeles pulled away with an unbroken 9-0 run inspired by Bryant to lead 55-48 at halftime.
With Bryant producing a dazzling array of fade-away jump shots and twisting drives to the basket, the Lakers surged 19 points clear before ending the third quarter 81-74 ahead.
The Nuggets, who out-rebounded the Lakers 52-48, refused to buckle and trimmed the deficit to 98-94 with a late 17-7 run before Sessions and then Bryant, with two free throws, made the game safe for Los Angeles.
While the towering Bynum was repeatedly double-teamed by Denver after recording a superb triple-double in Game One, Bryant took advantage of the extra space available to him in offense.
“It’s tough when you play against us because there are legitimately three guys on the post that you have to double-team,” he said, referring also to Bynum and the creative Gasol.
“For Andrew, he’s continuing to get better at it and making great reads which is going to help us tremendously. He expects greatness out of himself.”
Former England soccer captain David Beckham, accompanied by his wife Victoria, watched Tuesday’s action on the eve of his 37th birthday.