Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES – Stretched to the limit in the series and in Game 7, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace led the Los Angeles Lakers off the brink of collapse and into the second round.
Gasol had 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, World Peace scored 15 points in his return from a seven-game suspension, and the Lakers outlasted the Denver Nuggets for a thrilling 96-87 victory Saturday night to win their first-round series.
Steve Blake scored a playoff career-high 19 points, and Kobe Bryant had 17 points and eight assists for the Lakers, who blew a 16-point lead in the second half before surviving a finale with wild momentum swings and furious physical play.
With Gasol leading the Lakers’ emotional effort – exemplified when he got five offensive rebounds on a single, unbelievable tip-play with 7:10 left – the Lakers narrowly avoided becoming the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead.
“We were aggressive,” Gasol said. “We attacked the paint better. We pounded the boards as hard as we could, every single time. ... Our backs against the wall also had something to do with it.”
Andrew Bynum had 16 points and a career-playoff-high 18 rebounds for Los Angeles, which will open the second round Monday night in Oklahoma City against the second-seeded Thunder.
Ty Lawson and Al Harrington scored 24 points apiece for the sixth-seeded Nuggets, who committed 19 turnovers and managed just 7-of-27 shooting in the fourth quarter. Arron Afflalo scored 15 points in just the third Game 7 in franchise history for the Nuggets, who have lost in the first round in eight of the last nine postseasons – but never with this much excitement.
“Tomorrow or the next day, when the funk gets out of your body, you’re going to be proud of them,” Denver coach George Karl said. “I’ve never been in a locker room at the end of a season where I’m proud of every guy. ... The game was so physical. I think their size won over our speed, barely. We made enough shots to win, but we just didn’t rebound the ball.”
The Lakers appeared to be in control of the series after a narrow victory in Game 4 last weekend, but the Nuggets rallied for two consecutive dominant victories. Game 7 was a barn-burner, with both teams blowing significant leads in the final minutes.
World Peace hit four 3-pointers and energized Los Angeles with tough defense in his return. The former Ron Artest missed Los Angeles’ regular-season finale and the first six games against Denver for viciously elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year and one of his probable defensive assignments in the next round.
World Peace helped shut down Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller, holding them to a combined 2-for-19 shooting.
“He made plays (Saturday night) that won’t show up in the stat sheet that was absolutely ... amazing,” said Mike Brown, who shrugged off Magic Johnson’s pregame pronouncement that the first-year coach’s job would be in jeopardy with a loss. “He was monstrous for us (Saturday night).”
Gasol was the Lakers’ emotional leader, playing with renewed passion after a poor Game 6. Bryant didn’t dominate with scoring, but his playmaking helped Blake hit five 3-pointers in a row before missing his sixth attempt.
Gasol put the Lakers ahead for good with a tiebreaking tip-in with 6:30 to play, kicking off an 11-2 Lakers run. Afflalo’s 3-pointer cut the lead to 89-84 with 1:09 to play, but Bryant hit a dramatic 3-pointer before Gasol hit two free throws with 31 seconds left, punctuating his phenomenal game with a sweeping punch of his fist.
The Lakers improved to 15-1 in Game 7s at home, winning 11 in a row since the 1969 NBA finals. They’ve won three consecutive Game 7s since losing a first-rounder at Phoenix in 2006, also the last time an NBA team blew a 3-1 series lead.
The Lakers narrowly avoided becoming the ninth team to waste that 3-1 lead after losing two closeout games in the previous four days. Los Angeles had been 12-1 in closeout games since acquiring Gasol in 2008 before stumbling twice against the Nuggets, who led for almost every possession of the last two contests.
Gasol’s determination was obvious from the opening tip. The four-time All-Star had just three points and three rebounds in Game 6, but he played the finale with emotion and aggression, hustling for loose balls and rebounds while demonstratively celebrating baskets and playing to the crowd.
The Nuggets fell behind 62-46 midway through the third quarter, but they erased the entire Lakers’ lead in a furious 6½-minute stretch led by Lawson, who scored 13 points in the period. Denver took a lead on the first shot of the fourth, but the Lakers never trailed after Blake’s 3-pointer with 9:03 left.