Both Kobe Bryant and Mike Brown made calculated gambles by calling out Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum as the Lakers prepare to host the deciding Game 7 in their Western Conference quarterfinals series with the Denver Nuggets.
Bryant, of course, missed the pre-game shootaround on Thursday for Game 6 with a stomach illness, but started and performed admirably nonetheless; tallying 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting in a 113-96 setback in Denver.
He teammates, however, combined for just a 22-of-60 mark from the floor.
"The reality of it is, both [Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol] have to play better in order for us to win," Brown said. "We going to have a tough time winning if we get the same type of production not just offensively but on the defensive end of the floor too."
Bynum finished with just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting while Gasol was even worse, finishing with three points on a 1-of-10 clip.
Bryant was a little more nuanced in his criticism but also took an indirect shot at his supporting cast by talking up Metta World Peace, who has served the final game of his seven-game suspension for elbowing Oklahoma City's James Harden and will available for Game 7.
"He's the one guy that I can rely on night in and night out to compete and play hard and play with that sense of urgency and no fear," Bryant said when talking about the former Ron Artest. "I'm looking forward to having that by my side again."
He'll need it against a Nuggets team that has proven to be deeper and far more athletic than L.A. to this point.
Denver set the tone early in Game 6 and battled until the end of a wire-to- wire victory.
Facing elimination in the best-of-seven set, Denver opened the contest on a 13-0 run and never looked back, leading by as many as 28.
Ty Lawson netted 5-of-6 three-point attempts en route to a playoff career-high 32 points, Corey Brewer poured in 18 off the bench and Kenneth Faried continued his strong rookie campaign with 15 points and 11 boards.
"We're going back to LA, we're all going to stick together and just follow the game plan and make sure we come out strong, because we don't want to be down early and have to come from behind," Lawson said.
The Pepsi Center crowd was amped up even more early in the third quarter of Game 6 when Bryant -- who was reportedly fatigued during the intermission -- drove his arm into the back of Faried's head while the rookie was in the air during a drive to the hoop and unable to defend himself, earning a flagarant-1 foul.
Faried shook off the play and returned energized, hitting both flagrant free- throws and knocking down a jump hook a bit later before blocking the 7-foot Bynum's layup attempt.
All told, the Nuggets responded to Bryant's foul with an 11-4 run for their first 20-plus point lead of the night.
"I don't think [Bryant] tried to do it, I think it just came out that way," said Nuggets head coach George Karl, who will be celebrating his 62nd birthday on Saturday. "But it definitely gave us an extra level of energy, an extra level of intensity, an extra level of momentum that carried probably for seven or eight minutes into a big lead."
History was against Karl's club before this series even started. Denver and the Lakers had met in the playoffs on five different occasions previously (1979, '85, '87, 2008, '09) with the Lakers advancing each time, most recently defeating the Nuggets 4-2 in the '09 Western Conference finals en route to the franchise's last NBA title.
Meanwhile, after the Lakers took the first two games of the set, the Nuggets had to deal with the fact that L.A. is a gaudy 42-1 in its storied history when taking that kind of lead in a best-of-seven series. Also, only eight NBA teams have won a series after trailing 3-1, the last of which was the 2006 Phoenix Suns when they defeated the Lakers.
That said, while history is on the Lakers side, so is the pressure.
"They're going to run Mike Brown first out of town [if L.A. loses Game 7]," Former Lakers superstar Magic Johnson said as an ESPN NBA analyst on Friday. "Then second will be [Andrew] Bynum. Then third will be [Pau] Gasol."
Pressed by others in the studio, Johnson, who sold his 4.5 percent ownership stake in the Lakers in 2010 but remains on the franchise's payroll as a vice president, became even clearer.
"Mike Brown will not be coaching the Lakers if they lose this game," Johnson said. "There would be so much pressure on Jim Buss and the Laker organization to get rid of him."
Brown, meanwhile, continued to accentuate the need for Bynum and Gasol to play at a high-level.
"Whether it's fair or not, I just think (Bynum's) that good," Brown said. "If he wasn't that good, then I wouldn't ask that of him or expect it of him. Same with Pau. I think Pau is that good. We got two bigs that are very, very talented bigs and they can impact the game in a lot of different ways."
No player on the Nuggets roster has ever taken part in a Game 7, while the Lakers have plenty of experience in such situations.
Bryant is 4-1 in Game 7s and teamed with Gasol, Bynum and World Peace among others to take out Boston during the final game of the 2010 NBA Finals. Denver's last appearance in a Game 7 was a loss in the 1994 Western Conference semifinals to Utah.