Chris Carlson/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES – The Denver Nuggets ran the court and drove the lane with all the intensity they lacked in their playoff opener. They double-teamed Andrew Bynum, harassed Pau Gasol and scored relentlessly in the paint.
Nope, still not enough to beat Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Not even enough to get a lead.
Bryant scored 38 points, Bynum followed up his triple-double with a career playoff-high 27 points and nine rebounds, and the Lakers weathered Denver’s late rally for a 104-100 victory Tuesday night, taking a 2-0 series lead.
Gasol had 13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists for the third-seeded Lakers, who still haven’t trailed in two games despite several dicey moments in Game 2. They survived a much-improved effort by the Nuggets and Ty Lawson, who scored 25 points and led the fourth-quarter charge.
Bryant was too sharp in his 83rd career 30-point playoff game, more than anybody except Michael Jordan. After last season’s second-round ouster in their failed quest for a threepeat, Bryant and his teammates are happier and healthier – and they’ve been too much for Denver.
“I think we’re just playing much better,” Bryant said. “It’s tough to play against us, because there’s legitimately three guys you have to double-team.”
Game 3 is Friday in Denver.
The Lakers, however, didn’t get out of Staples Center without a little drama. Los Angeles’ 19-point lead in the third quarter dwindled to four with 3 minutes to play, but Ramon Sessions scored four key points in the final 1:14 before Bryant’s game-icing free throws with 9.4 seconds left.
“I think losing last season, and the way we lost, we’re approaching this postseason much more focused,” Gasol said. “We’re not overlooking any team, any game. We’re doing whatever it takes to be successful. ... Overall, I think we played well again. We just allowed them to play their game a little more than in the first game.”
Lawson shook his awful series opener with 17 second-half points, but the sixth-seeded Nuggets lost their ninth consecutive road playoff game despite playing much closer to their preferred speedy tempo after the Lakers muzzled them in Game 1.
Kenneth Faried had 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Danilo Gallinari and Corey Brewer added 13 points apiece, but Denver still couldn’t consistently defend Bryant or negate Bynum, who played another outstanding low-post game on both ends until disappearing a bit in a three-point fourth quarter.
“It’s closer, (but) when you get down 19 points and try to battle back, it takes a lot of energy,” Lawson said. “I feel like we learned a couple of things from this game. At one point in the game, we’ve got to be up. It’s tough to be battling back the whole game.”
Sessions scored 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which played just enough fast-break ball of its own to stay ahead of Denver – and now the Lakers are halfway to the second round. They only have lost one playoff series in franchise history after winning the first two games, going 42-1.
A 14-5 run in the final minutes eventually trimmed Los Angeles’ lead to 98-84, but Sessions hit a teardrop layup with 1:14 to play, and Bryant made a slick steal on the other end. JaVale McGee’s tip-in with 30 seconds left trimmed the Lakers’ lead back to four, but Sessions and Bryant hit their free throws.
“The only thing I wish is the fight of this game is what we had in Game 1,” Denver coach George Karl said. “But we’re young, and we’re learning. You saw us play a lot of Nuggets basketball (Tuesday). I think it’ll get a little better in Game 3. I think the home court will be good for us. We haven’t played a good defensive game yet, so we’ll learn from this.”
Jordan Hill shook off brewing legal troubles to contribute six points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, who used just three reserves. Denver’s bench outscored the Lakers’ reserves 35-8.
Bynum blocked just two shots after swatting 10 in the Lakers’ series-opening victory, but Denver minimized his dominance with home run passes, speedy outlets and 30 fast-break points.
Karl attempted to help through the media after Game 1, saying Bynum and the Lakers played illegal defense constantly during the opener. Karl tried another gambit before Game 2, saying Staples Center is not a noisy, intimidating road building but more like “a Broadway stage.”
The Lakers were called for no illegal defenses in Game 2, and their fans were screaming for encores.
Denver cut Los Angeles’ lead to four points late on consecutive hustle plays by Faried, but Bryant scrapped for a loose ball on one end and led the break to the other, feeding Bynum for a dunk – his first points of the fourth quarter – and a foul with 2:15 to play.
Hill produced another strong performance off the Lakers’ bench a day after news broke of a felony assault charge against him in Houston, where he played for the Rockets before a late-season trade. Hill said Tuesday night he was “shocked” by the charges but thinks he won’t miss any time in the Lakers’ championship quest.