El Segundo, Calif. • Kobe Bryant isn’t eager to correct a long-standing misconception about his career.
People always assume he’s determined to take the Los Angeles Lakers’ biggest late-game shots. He’s actually just as comfortable setting up his teammates to be heroes by drawing a double-team.
He did it to the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series, and he’d be happy to do it again when the Lakers go for the clinching victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Although he’s pretty sure it’s an open secret in NBA coaching circles, Bryant acknowledges he’s been a decoy and a facilitator for years when Derek Fisher and Robert Horry were his sharpshooting teammates on the perimeter.
Fisher has been replaced by Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake this season, but the Lakers’ late-game poise and strategy haven’t changed, as evidenced late in the toughest game of their first-round series. In the final minute of Game 4, Pau Gasol set up Sessions’ tiebreaking 3-pointer before Bryant fed Blake for the back-breaking 3-pointer and a 3-1 series lead.
“It’s great to see them make those big shots,” Bryant said after the Lakers’ practice at their training complex Monday. “[Other teams] will continue to sit in there and force me to kick the ball out to shooters, as evidenced by Derek knocking big shot after big shot. No matter how many big shots he made, teams still left him.”
The Nuggets were paying attention, and the final minute of Game 4 drew attention to what’s considered a problem for Denver’s balanced roster: There’s no obvious leader to take a key late-game shot. But that’s not what the Nuggets need, according to Bryant.
“It’s not really about having one guy,” Bryant said. “It’s about having somebody that’s going to command double-teams and free everybody up. That’s really what it’s about.”
The Lakers have done it impressively in the last few weeks, particularly while Bryant rested his bruised shin for eight late-season games. They can book a second-round date with Oklahoma City by eliminating Denver for the third time in five postseasons.
“Hopefully we finish them off,” center Andrew Bynum said. “I don’t want to go back to Denver. ... Closeout games are actually kind of easy. Teams will fold if you come out and play hard.”
Bryant scored 69 points in the series’ two games at Staples Center, but just 44 in two games in Denver. Instead, he doubled his assists total and encouraged his teammates to step up.
“It’s as exciting to see Kobe make a pass at the right time and trust his guys,” coach Mike Brown said. “In the past a lot, it’s been Kobe, Kobe, Kobe, but we’ve gone to Pau a lot, to Sessions. The guys have seen me trust second-unit guys down the stretch.”
While Denver doesn’t have the Lakers’ star power, Los Angeles doesn’t have the Nuggets’ depth. The Lakers are trying to develop their supporting cast during a transitional season from Phil Jackson’s strategies to Brown’s innovations.
Although the bit players hit several big shots in Game 4, the Lakers’ bench has been largely ineffective in recent weeks outside of Jordan Hill, who has developed abruptly into a dynamic rebounder and energy player. Most notably, Matt Barnes is a dismal 1 for 14 on 3-pointers against Denver, failing to step into an increased role during Metta World Peace’s suspension.
But the Nuggets’ superior bench hasn’t translated into success, largely because Denver still can’t impose its speedy tempo on the bulky, disciplined Lakers. JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried have gathered a wealth of knowledge during the first playoff series of their careers, but they’re already facing elimination for the first time.
“It’s not over, and it’s a series that we can win Game 5,” Denver coach George Karl said. “We should have won (Game 4) in a lot of ways. We gave a lot of good effort and had a lot of good results, but we got beat by a good team.”
Veteran Al Harrington is happy his young teammates still believe they have a chance to shock the Lakers, who never trailed at home at any point in the first two games of the series.
“They’re so naive, they definitely do,” Harrington said jokingly. “I definitely believe we have a chance. If we can get Game 5, I definitely don’t think the Lakers want to come back here to play a Game 6. If we can get Game 5, I think 6 can maybe take care of itself, and hopefully make it a seven-game series.”
Of his first playoff experience, Faried said he has learned “it’s hard, that it’s intense. You’ve got to bring it every night. You can’t have the little mix-ups that you had in March or February. You’ve got to stay focused. You’ve got to bring it every night.”
The Nuggets hadn’t lost perspective on their dire situation, taking a moment during practice in Colorado to chuckle at the memory of the 20-year-old woman who wandered onto the court during Game 4. Faried thanked the woman for giving him a breather while she apparently called for former Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin.
“I gave her his number,” Harrington said. “Hopefully they can contact.”
Game 1 • L.A. Lakers 103, Denver 88
Game 2 • L.A. Lakers 104, Denver 100
Game 3 • Denver 99, L.A. Lakers 84
Game 4 • L.A. Lakers 92, Denver 88
L.A. Lakers lead series 3-1
Tuesday • Denver at L.A. Lakers, 8:30 p.m., TNT
x-Thursday • L.A. Lakers at Denver, TBD
x-Saturday • Denver at L.A. Lakers, TBD
P Denver at L.A. Lakers, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., TNT
L.A. Lakers lead series 3-1