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Lakers’ escape isn’t too sweet

ON THE NBA

Normalcy returned to Lakerdom, with the purple and gold back on top again.

As if.

Suggesting a long, hard series awaits, as opposed to proving they were superior to the Nuggets in any way, the Lakers pulled this one back in after trailing by 10 points in the first quarter, and five in the last 4 minutes 17 seconds before Kobe Bryant rescued them in a 105-103 escape Tuesday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

Bryant scored 40 points, 18 in the fourth quarter, as well as guarding Chauncey Billups in the beginning, J.R. Smith in the middle of the game and Carmelo Anthony at the end.

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“Once I sensed we didn’t have the energy, I took it on myself to lead by example,” Bryant said.

“There are certain points of the game when Chauncey is in attack mode and I know when those are. Same with J.R. Then I went and wrestled with the bear.”

The bear was Anthony, whom Kobe couldn’t guard, nor could any other Laker. Once a pigeon when the Nuggets played the Lakers, Anthony had 39 points, so the Lakers will have to think of something else.

And while they’re at it, maybe they can locate their size advantage.

Starting two 7-footers against the Nuggets’ 6-foot-10 Nene and 6-8 Kenyon Martin, the Lakers were supposed to punish them inside. Instead, Martin and Nene outscored Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, 29-19.

“They muscled us, they pressured our passers and they took away our angles,” said Coach Phil Jackson.

“We went in at halftime to talk about our defense and we pointed out to our guys, of their 20 baskets, 19 were by their big men. They were just aggressive, bringing it to us, and we didn’t make a stand.

“I thought we did somewhat of a better job against them, but we’re going to have to be much better in the interior part of our game than we did tonight.”

Have we heard that before?

By the start of this series, the Lakers’ image had fallen so low, the Nuggets had become a trendy pick for pundits, and only a slight underdog for bettors, despite the Lakers’ home-court advantage.

The day before the game, Bryant talked to John Ireland, who played him a tape of ABC’s Mark Jackson, railing at the Lakers during Game 6 in Houston, announcing, “I’m absolutely done this year picking the Lakers. I’m done. I’m picking the Denver Nuggets. I’m also going to pick the winner of the Eastern Conference [to win the title] because one thing I know is those teams are going to show up. It’s not going to be because they were outworked or gave disappointing effort.”

Noted Bryant: “Mark’s right.”

Meanwhile, Jackson said Tuesday’s game suggested the Lakers aren’t lost, but they aren’t found, either.

“We missed out on a great opportunity to steal this game,” said Billups afterward.

“We pretty much controlled the game. That’s why it’s disappointing that we’re sitting here, losing this game. [But] that’s what home court is all about.”

Taking it hard, Denver Coach George Karl, asked to talk about the game, sat in silence for five seconds.

“I’m not really going to analyze,” said Karl. “They’re a great team, they were great in the end and they have the best closer in the sport.”

What else the Lakers have, on a consistent basis, remains to be seen.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com


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