Lakers regain control

LOS ANGELES — Lamar Odom's back was hurting, and he didn't care.

Kobe Bryant was tired, though it didn't matter.

The Los Angeles Lakers were pushed and pulled through three of the tensest quarters in their ever-expanding season, but they did not mind, snatching away an emotional victory that might mean the difference between going to the NBA Finals and going home early.

The Lakers answered their most one-sided defeat of the season with their most important 12 minutes since training camp began last October, driving back against the Denver Nuggets with a 103-94 victory Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

When it was over, Bryant found Odom and tapped him gratefully on the back of the head as purple and gold confetti dropped slowly from the ceiling. Indeed, the Lakers had taken a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 6 is Friday night in Denver.

If the Lakers were pummeled down low in Game 4, they were the ones on the attack in Game 5, scoring 54 points in the paint to only 36 for Denver.

Odom had 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots, backed up strongly by Pau Gasol's 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots.

Odom, fighting through a lower-back bruise the size of a saucer, might as well have been speaking for the rest of the Lakers.

"I had to suck it up," he said.

Bryant has been brutally honest about fatigue seeping into his system, but he had 22 points, eight assists and five rebounds in almost 45 minutes. Gasol played exactly 45 minutes.

Whatever it takes.

"I'll get plenty of rest when I'm on a beach in Cabo," Bryant said.

The nervous tension in the building was off the charts, so much so that fans in the lower bowl stood for practically the entire fourth quarter, a rarity for the play-it-cool Staples Center crowd.

How tight was the night?

It was only the fourth time in NBA history that a playoff game was tied at the end of each of the first three quarters. The last time it happened was 1964, when the Lakers defeated the St. Louis Hawks in something called the division semifinals.

Forty-five years later, the Lakers created separation with a 21-3 run that started in the third quarter and continued into the fourth.

They were trailing, 73-66, when Shannon Brown's layup started them on their way with 4:46 left in the third quarter. Brown followed it up with a startling dunk over Chris "Birdman" Andersen, pushing the Lakers to a 76-76 tie through three quarters.

The Lakers then scored the first 11 points of the fourth — a short hook shot by Gasol, a three-point play on a dunk by Odom, a short hook by Odom, two free throws by Bryant, and a beat-the-shot-clock 21-footer by Brown with 8:11 to play.

The Lakers won the fourth quarter, 27-18, and, ultimately, the game.

"The way that they beat us in Game 4, I think there was a lot of people having doubts," Bryant said. "We did a good job to respond to the challenge."

Odom, in particular, responded.

He had averaged 7.5 and shot 34.5 percent from the field through the first four games of this series, enough to make him turn away from all sorts of critical analyses.

"Couldn't pick the paper up any more," he said. "Didn't want to answer the phone. Couldn't watch ESPN. Couldn't watch TV for a little bit.

"I took it like a man. I had to — this is my 10th season. I haven't been playing well. My back's just to the wall. I put my focus cap on, came out and just went after it."

The Nuggets are now the ones with their backs to the wall.

They shot 38.6 percent and had no reliable scoring source beyond Carmelo Anthony, who had 31 points. Kenyon Martin and Chauncey Billups were their next-best scorers, finishing with 12 points each.

Nuggets Coach George Karl wasn't thrilled with the foul disparity, which fell in the Lakers' favor after the Nuggets had the edge in Game 4. The Nuggets were called for 30 fouls and the Lakers only 22, though it translated to less difference in free throws: The Lakers had 35 attempts from the line, the Nuggets 30.

"I thought they got the benefit of the whistle," Karl said. '"Melo got beat up tonight. And I think there's some good things my team did. For the first three quarters, it was a pretty evenly matched game. It will be very easy to get my team ready to play for Game 6."

The Lakers forged a tie at halftime only after Sasha Vujacic's 3-pointer moved them into a 56-56 deadlock.

The tension rolled into the second half, the Lakers finally taking the victory. One more, and they advance to the NBA Finals, where only four victories would separate them from the franchise's 15th championship.

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