Saturday May 30th, 2009

DENVER -- There will be no Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals because Kobe Bryant decided he'd had enough. Enough of Nuggets defenders poking him in the midsection as he elevated from the perimeter and slapping his forehead as he released his shots. Enough of Dahntay Jones, J.R. Smith, Linas Kleiza and Chauncey Billups bumping him like he was a running back hitting the hole and not a shooting guard looking for a seam. Enough of a city and a town that brings back too many bad memories. Enough of all of it. It was time to go home.

"It was a very controlled, excellent game from him," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, a few minutes after Bryant scored 35 points in L.A.'s 119-92 rout of the Nuggets (RECAP | BOX).

And it wasn't just Bryant who looked like he was through with Denver. It was Lamar Odom, who before the game added flu symptoms to his growing list of injuries. Prior to the game Odom's locker looked like a veritable pharmacy, with a bottle of cough syrup and a packet of throat lozenges within arms reach, his ammunition to stave off a rapidly developing virus. Yet it was the Nuggets who were left feeling ill after Odom chipped in 20 points and eight rebounds, including a pair of run-stopping buckets.

"Whoever awoke Lamar Odom," said Nuggets coach George Karl, "should be fired."

It was Trevor Ariza, who may have officially wrested the Bruce Bowen Ace Defender/Dangerous Spot-Up Shooter title from the Spurs aging forward on Friday, hounding Carmelo Anthony on 'Melo's 25th birthday while knocking down three crowd deflating three-pointers.

It was Pau Gasol sparking a balanced Lakers attack with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Although he was often visibly and vocally frustrated with his lack of touches in this series, Gasol was a workhorse in Game 7, showcasing a dazzling selection of post moves and orchestrating the offense like a seasoned maestro from the low post.

Even Luke Walton joined the act. If you haven't been following this series, Walton has been the guy fouling Anthony. A lot. But in Game 6 Walton had his own breakout game, taking advantage of a porous Nuggets defense to score 10 points, most of which came off of wide-open jump shots.

"They are the best team in the NBA," said Karl.

But in the end, it was all about Kobe, who now stands just four wins away from finally shedding Shaquille O'Neal's oversized shadow. For the first time in the post-Shaq Era, Bryant led his team to a playoff series victory that actually mattered. Taking nothing away from the Lakers' torrid run through the Western Conference last season, but 2008 was a cakewalk. The Nuggets, Jazz and Spurs took just three games from L.A. in '08 and looked more like ushers than opponents.

This Nuggets team has teeth. At least they did until Bryant whittled them down and then yanked them. It wasn't that Bryant scored 35 points. It was the 12-for-20 from the field. It was the 9-for-9 from the foul line. It was the 10 assists. It was the six rebounds. It was the 11 points he scored in the final 3:09 of the first half to expand the Lakers lead from a manageable six to an out-of-reach 13.

"He made four shots during that stretch that I think Jesus would have had trouble covering," said Karl.

It was the runner Bryant made in the third quarter with Billups hanging off his forearm like a 202-pound coat hanger. It was the three he deposited with the clock winding down in the second quarter and the shot he swatted a few seconds later. Bryant finished the game an absurd +31 and had the smattering of Lakers fans in attendance drowning out more than 20,000 stunned Nuggets fans with chants of "M-V-P."

"I'm not going to watch this film for a long time," said Karl. "Maybe never."

The Lakers will have plenty of time to watch as they prepare for their second straight trip to the NBA Finals. One half of the dream match is set and as Bryant and the Lakers wait to see if LeBron James can pull the Cavaliers out of the fire and complete the matchup the world has been clamoring for, they can rest secure in the knowledge that they just played their finest game.

"We saved our best game for last," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "Tonight was a game where we played at the highest level."

Especially Kobe. Though it can be argued that his level was even higher.

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