LOS ANGELES (AP) Pau Gasol had 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, Metta World Peace scored 15 points in his return from a seven-game suspension, and the Los Angeles Lakers outlasted the Denver Nuggets for a thrilling 96-87 victory in Game 7 on 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 an emotional effort, the Lakers narrowly avoided becoming the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead.
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.
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 straight 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.
While World Peace shut down Danilo Gallinari and provided unexpected perimeter scoring, Gasol was the Lakers’ best player on both ends in the finale, 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 a Game 7 at home, winning 11 straight since the 1969 NBA finals. They’ve won three straight 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 a 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 past 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 erased the entire Lakers lead in a furious 6 1/2-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.
NOTES: Bryant is 5-1 in Game 7s in his career. … The Lakers played at home on a Saturday night for the first time all season. Their other two Saturday home dates were matinees. … Fans near courtside included Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg, Julie Bowen, Zac Efron and rapper The Game.