In a season of redemption, where the Lakers decided from day one to finish off what they couldn’t a year ago, another authoritative step was taken toward an NBA championship.
Those who questioned the Lakers’ resolve were quieted. Those who wondered if they were too fatigued now know the answer.
Those who didn’t think the Lakers could handle the physical, unpredictable Denver Nuggets witnessed a thorough 119-92 series-clinching victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Friday at Pepsi Center.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals begins Thursday against either Orlando or Cleveland. The Lakers went 2-0 against Cleveland and 0-2 against Orlando in the regular season, but they would have home-court advantage against Orlando.
Kobe Bryant had 35 points and 10 assists in a dominant effort Friday that brought home the franchise’s 30th conference championship. James Worthy then handed a silver trophy to Lakers General Manger Mitch Kupchak, amid a reaction by the players that would be called appreciative rather than excited or declarative.
Once they were done with the brief ceremony, the Lakers removed the T-shirts and caps that proclaimed them conference champions. Andrew Bynum, who missed this part last season because of a knee injury, was the only one who wore his new merchandise out to the team bus.
The victory marked the second consecutive time the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals, though they never came home with the Larry O’Brien trophy last season, losing to Boston in six games.
“It’s good to be here, but it’s not our goal,” said forward Trevor Ariza, who had 17 points on seven-for-nine shooting. “It was just a step. I know we’ll be happy when we get that ring.”
There were plenty who weren’t sure the Lakers would have a chance after they sleepwalked their way through a seven-game series against Houston in the conference semifinals.
But they took everything the Nuggets threw at them -- flagrant fouls, technical fouls and a maze of tattoos and attitude -- and emerged relatively unscathed.
Bryant said this playoff journey through the West, which took 18 games, wasn’t comparable to last season’s breezy stroll that required only 15.
“Much, much tougher,” he said. “Much more physical. Mentally challenging for us. But we gained valuable experience, went through a roller coaster of emotions.”
If progress can be measured series by series, the Lakers obviously learned from their struggles against Houston. Two weeks ago, they suffered a 15-point Game 6 loss to a weakened Houston team and were forced to play a Game 7.
This time, it was never in doubt, as the Lakers shot 57.3% and made all 24 of their free throws.
The Nuggets trailed, 41-37, in the final minutes of the second quarter before Ariza made a three-pointer and Bryant scored a quick seven points, including a three-pointer with 4.1 seconds left that gave the Lakers a 53-40 halftime lead.
“No one in basketball could have covered him,” Denver Coach George Karl said of Bryant’s second-quarter flurry. “He made about four shots in the stretch that I think Jesus would have had trouble covering him.”
Bryant also stymied several small second-half Denver rallies with an array of outside shots and successful drives to the basket.
Not to be forgotten were Pau Gasol (20 points, 12 rebounds), Lamar Odom (20 points, eight rebounds) and Luke Walton (10 points, three assists).
Nuggets fans began leaving en masse with 4:17 left, the Lakers ahead 105-85, the Nuggets not close to being the energetic bunch that convincingly tied the series at 2-2 with a 19-point victory in Game 4.
The Lakers can say bye-bye to Birdman but now might have to face Superman.
The Lakers lost twice this season to Orlando, including a 109-103 home loss in December in which they were pounded down low, Dwight Howard finishing with 25 points and 20 rebounds. The Lakers suffered a 106-103 loss a month later in Orlando, Sasha Vujacic’s three-point attempt rimming out in the final seconds.
On the other hand, the Lakers won both games against Cleveland, including a 101-91 victory in February that snapped Cleveland’s 23-game home winning streak. Odom had 28 points and 17 rebounds in that game, helping cover for an ailing Bryant, who had 19 points despite flu-like symptoms.
“I think overall, we want to play Orlando even though they beat us two times during the season just because we get the home-court advantage,” Bynum said. “That’s huge in the playoffs because that means we’ve just got to get one there. If we do wind up playing Cleveland, though, everybody remembers what happened last year and how we have to steal one of the first two [road] games.”
A year later, a year wiser, the Lakers have another shot at winning the franchise’s 15th NBA championship.
How the scoring broke down:
*--* LAKERS DENVER 79 STARTERS 58 40 BENCH 34 FROM WHERE 44 IN PAINT 36 24 MID-RANGE 12 27 3-POINTERS 24 24 FREE THROWS 20 *--*