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Lakers stand before falling

Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum sat out Thursday’s game. Shockingly, the rest of the Lakers didn’t join them.

The Lakers added a new twist to their late-season swoon, losing a close one to the Denver Nuggets without two starters as Bryant joined Bynum on the list of injured players because of swelling in his right knee.

Pau Gasol had 26 points and Ron Artest had 22 as the Lakers almost staged a surprise party before falling, 98-96, Thursday at Pepsi Center.

They had a chance to clinch the Western Conference, but Derek Fisher’s three-point attempt at the buzzer was blocked by Carmelo Anthony, their solid effort Thursday merely becoming their fifth loss in the last nine games.

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Bryant asked for, and received, a night off after consulting with Coach Phil Jackson before the game. He has collected a variety of injuries this season -- a broken right index finger in December, a sprained left ankle in February and knee soreness, an off-and-on problem this season, Jackson said.

Of the three, which is the worst?

“I would say probably the knee,” Jackson said.

Is it tendinitis?

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“I wouldn’t want to define it,” Jackson said. “I would just say that he’s got some basic things that go on as you get older in age. Some of it’s about the swelling that comes along with it. You play a late game, you fly out after a ballgame, it starts to stress out.”

Bryant had not been shooting well, making 13 of 47 attempts (27.7%) in his previous two games.

“It’s something that [Jackson] brought up and then we talked about it, and then at the end of the day, it’s my call,” Bryant said. “Everything’s judged in June anyway. Nobody will even remember this. . . .

“I couldn’t get enough elevation on my jump shot the way I wanted to.”

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Earlier in the day, Bryant acknowledged his nagging injuries when asked whether he still planned to play for Team USA in the world championships, which start in late August in Turkey.

“Obviously I’ve got a couple of health issues, one being a cracked finger,” he said. “But we’ll see how it goes.”

Jackson didn’t seem to mind Bryant’s catching up on some rest, even though the Lakers (55-23) are now tied with Orlando (55-23) for the NBA’s second-best record. Jackson said he didn’t think Bryant would play Friday against Minnesota.

“I’ve encouraged him to find some space and take some time off for this late run if he thinks it can help him in the playoffs,” Jackson said. “I think he’s put in a lot of energy and it’s really noticeable that he’s not doing the things he’d like to do out there on his floor.

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“Some of it is his shot’s out of rhythm and some of it is the lift he’s getting before the shot, which changes the timing on everything you do.”

Sasha Vujacic started in Bryant’s place but went one for six in the first half and was replaced by Shannon Brown to start the second half. Brown finished with 12 points on three-for-12 shooting.

As the Lakers fell behind, 62-47, there was a particularly bad miss by Artest, who was somehow well short on a layup attempt after Vujacic dropped the ball off to him on a two-on-none fastbreak.

But Vujacic had two three-pointers in the fourth quarter and Jordan Farmar hit one too, giving the Lakers a 92-87 lead with 3:45 to play.

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The Lakers still had a chance after J.R. Smith made only one of two free throws with 12.7 seconds left for a 98-96 Nuggets lead.

It was as close as the Lakers got. Jackson wasn’t thrilled.

“It’s a game we probably should have won,” he said, citing two late turnovers by Gasol.

Jackson also wasn’t happy when Brown’s outlet pass to Fisher was knocked out of bounds after Denver guard Chauncey Billups jumped in front of it. The referees ruled that Fisher touched the ball last, giving Denver the ball again with 14 seconds left and a 97-96 edge.

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Referees reviewed the play courtside and stuck with their original decision.

“It was our ball, but they had already called Denver’s ball,” Jackson said. "[Billups] hit Fisher’s arm clearly . . . normally they make that call.”

The Lakers went 4-1 when Bryant was sidelined by a sore ankle in February, and they certainly weren’t blown out Thursday.

In the end, though, they lost the season series to the Nuggets, 3-1, Anthony rebounding Thursday from one of his worst games this season when the Nuggets fell to the Lakers last month.

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Anthony had 31 points Thursday and made 10 of 20 shots with one turnover. Last month, he had 21 points against the Lakers on seven-for-19 shooting with eight turnovers.

All eyes now turn to Bryant and Bynum, who was sidelined Thursday for a ninth consecutive game because of a strained left Achilles’ tendon. He said he would return for the first game of the playoffs.

“I told both Andrew and Kobe it’s more important that they go into the playoffs with a good set of legs,” Jackson said.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

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twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.


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