Kobe Bryant spent all day under the weather and the way his teammates let him down made him feel even worse.
The Los Angeles Lakers star scored 31 points despite a stomach ailment, but was upset with the performance of his supporting cast as the Denver Nuggets rolled to a 113-96 win Thursday night to force a Game 7 in their first-round playoff series.
Bryant was quick to respond when asked if his teammates matched his heart.
”No, of course they didn’t,” he said.
Bryant suited up despite an upset stomach that he said left his hotel room ”looking like a scene from `The Exorcist.”’ He was so sick that he didn’t attend the morning shootaround before the game and had to take intravenous fluids all day.
”We let each other down, for sure,” Bryant explained. ”We didn’t step up and meet their energy and they know that.”
Then again, the Nuggets played with an energy that would’ve been hard to match as they sent the series back to Staples Center for an all-or-nothing showdown on Saturday night. Ty Lawson scored 32 points and reserve Corey Brewer added 18 to help the Nuggets tie up a series that many thought was over when they sank into a 3-1 hole.
”We can’t get too high off this,” rookie Kenneth Faried said. ”We have to stay focused.”
Faried was part of the contingent that bottled up Lakers big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Gasol was held to just three points while Bynum struggled from the field – eventually finishing with 11 points and 16 boards – before taking a seat for most of the fourth quarter.
Lakers coach Mike Brown was disappointed with the play of Bynum and Gasol, a sentiment shared by Bryant, who urged them to be more assertive.
”It’s one of those things where psychologically you have to put yourself in a predicament, in a position where you have no other option but to perform,” Bryant said. ”You have to emotionally put yourself with your back to the wall and kind of trick yourself, so to speak, to feel that there is no other option but to perform.
”When you have that, when you put yourself in that mind state, then your performance shines through.”
That’s precisely the way the Nuggets played: With desperation and determination.
”It was really fun,” Brewer said. ”The crowd was into the game and we were playing well.”
Lawson set the tone early by lifting the Nuggets to a 13-0 lead to begin the game. He hit his first shot and then another – his confidence soaring with every jumper that left his hand.
The speedy point guard finished 13 of 18 from the field, including five 3-pointers.
For his newfound stroke, he can thank his shooting coach, Ivory Manning, whom Lawson flew in the night before to fix some mechanical flaws.
”He got my shot right,” Lawson said.
Did he ever – at an opportune time, too.
”This was a big game, the biggest game he’s probably ever played in,” coach George Karl said. ”And Saturday will be even bigger.”
The Lakers are hoping to bounce back from this rocky performance, possibly rediscover the swagger that’s suddenly gone missing.
”It’s a game where it’s all about heart, all about bringing it,” Gasol said. ”That’s what we’re going to have to do to beat this team.”
Here’s some encouraging news for the Lakers: Metta World Peace will be back for series finale. Thursday night was the seventh and final game of his suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden in the head last month.
They need him.
Even more, Bryant needs him.
”He’s the one guy I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency, play with no fear,” Bryant said. ”I’m looking forward to having that on my side again.”
A dig at Gasol and Bynum? Perhaps.
There was plenty of that going around.
”Kobe being dehydrated and all that and sick as a dog, coming out and trying to will us to a win, it’s disappointing to watch him give that type of effort … and we don’t get it from everybody,” Brown said. ”Our second- and third-best players are Drew and Pau and the reality is both of those guys got to play better in order for us to win.”
Gasol understood the frustration.
”Obviously, we both want to contribute more – on both ends of the floor,” he said. ”No excuses. We’ve got to go into Game 7 leaving everything out there, giving everything we have on every single possession and grinding it out. Obviously, this team right now is playing well.”
After their fast start, the Nuggets had to weather a Lakers spurt in which they cut the lead to four late in the first half before building it back up to nine at halftime.
In the second half, Denver went on a 9-0 run to pull away again.
One play helped light a fire under the Nuggets during that surge: Faried was cruising in for a layup when Bryant clocked him on the side of the head, sending the rookie tumbling to the floor.
Bryant was whistled for a flagrant foul and the play energized an already vocal crowd. From there, the Nuggets pushed the pace and the lead up to 28 points, before letting off the accelerator.
Now, it’s on to a Game 7, where the Nuggets are 1-1 in team history. The Lakers have a little more experience, playing in 23 Game 7s and going 15-8.
”We knew that we could win and make the series longer, but not a lot of people believed that it would go to a Game 7,” Danilo Gallinari said.
Especially Bynum, who irritated the Nuggets by saying on the eve of Game 5 that ”close-out games are actually kind of easy.” If that wasn’t enough, the Nuggets found more motivation in something written in the Lakers’ locker room after the game Tuesday night. Scribbled on the grease board was this message: ”Flight. 3 pm. Pack for 3 games.”
Brown explained that it only made sense to pack for an extended trip because the next round will start in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have the home court to open the conference semifinals. But he denied the Lakers were victims of overconfidence, just poor execution.
Now, the Nuggets have the momentum.
”They’re playing a much more aggressive, much more of a dare-you type of defense,” Bynum said. ”We’re not responding or respecting them.”
Notes: Before the game, Nuggets reserve center Chris ”Birdman” Andersen was excused indefinitely from all team-related activities after Douglas County sheriff’s deputies searched his home as part of an investigation by the department’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit. Andersen has yet to play in the postseason after averaging 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds during the regular season. … Denver held LA under 100 points for a fourth straight game.
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