DENVER – Crunch time for the Los Angeles Lakers usually belongs to Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol.
Not this time.
Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake put the dagger in the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night, swishing 3-pointers in the final minute to lead the Lakers to a 92-88 comeback win that gave L.A. a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series.
The Lakers can wrap it up Tuesday night when the series shifts back to Southern California for Game 5.
Bryant (22 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Bynum (19 points, seven boards and three blocks) had bounce-back games and Gasol came up with huge plays at both ends as the Lakers controlled the tempo by grabbing 19 offensive rebounds, stymieing the faster, younger Nuggets who blew them out in Game 3.
With the game tied in the final minute, however, it was the Lakers' supporting cast that iced it.
"They got the two 3s to go down at the end of the game," Nuggets coach George Karl said, "but conceptually what we're trying to do at the end of the game is not let Kobe, Bynum and Gasol beat you."
Instead, it was Sessions and Blake — after top reserve Jordan Hill sparked a comeback from a six-point halftime deficit with a double-double off the bench.
"Sessions has hit big 3s. Even when I was out he hit some big 3s to win games. He did it again tonight. I have confidence in him," Bryant said. "If you're observing the game in the third quarter, I hit Sessions for an open shot, Blake for an open shot and (Matt) Barnes for an open shot and they missed all three of them. George, being observant as he is, saw I was (ticked). I was and (he) didn't think I would trust them at the end of the game to knock down those shots, but they stepped up and knocked them down."
With the game tied at 86, Danilo Gallinari was covering Bryant when a hard screen from Gasol sent the Italian to the floor grabbing his throat. While Gallinari stayed down, Sessions' 3-pointer from just in front of the Nuggets bench put the Lakers ahead 89-86 with 48 seconds remaining.
"It was a tough pick, you've got to expect that in the playoffs," Gallinari said. "I've got to be ready and play defense. Unfortunately, they hit a big shot out of that."
Andre Miller was whistled for basket interference at the other end, and Bryant found Blake for a 3-pointer from the left corner with 18.9 seconds left for a six-point cushion, L.A.'s biggest of the night.
Sessions, whose acquisition from Cleveland this spring led to the trade of five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher, finished with 12 points, and Blake had 10.
"Those are tough shoes to fill because he had experience," Bryant said of Fisher, who's now with the Oklahoma City Thunder. "But you have to start somewhere. Fish and I started somewhere. ... This was the beginning for them."
Gallinari led the Nuggets with 20 points, and Miller had 15.
After torching the Lakers for 50 points combined in the previous two games, Ty Lawson was held to 11 points and Nuggets big men Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee weren't nearly as effective on offense or disruptive defensively as they were in Game 2, when they combined for 28 points and 30 rebounds.
Together, they had 14 points and 11 rebounds Sunday.
Bynum, who blamed his scoreless first half 48 hours earlier on failing to properly prepare in the pregame, was much more active early on, scoring 11 in the first half, which ended with the Lakers trailing 51-45.
The game was briefly delayed with 1:10 left in the first half when a female fan started walking across the court while the Nuggets were setting up a play. The woman walked several steps onto the court as Lawson brought the ball past halfcourt. Officials blew the whistle to stop the play and the woman was escorted away by security.
The woman, identified as 20-year-old Savannah McMillan-Christmas of Denver, was cited for trespassing.
Al Harrington scored nine points in his return to the Nuggets' lineup. He started out with a clear face mask protecting his nose that was broken Friday night by an inadvertent elbow from Bynum, but he ditched the mask in a matter of minutes.
Harrington missed his first six shots but then sank four straight, including a 3-pointer that put the Nuggets ahead 76-75 early in the fourth quarter.
This is the 11th time the Nuggets have faced a 3-1 deficit and they've never overcome such a deficit to win a series.
"Oh, it's going to be difficult, no question about it," said Arron Afflalo. "We have to get two on their home floor. Game 5 on their home floor would give some life to this series if we're able to win it."
Karl figures his young team has grown a lot over the last week and isn't ready to concede the loaded Lakers stand all that much taller than his hodgepodge of hustling ballers.
"I don't think it's an impossible challenge," Karl said. "I think it's a great challenge for this young team. For me, I've been blessed with having great runs in the playoffs and I think I probably have one or two more left in me in my lifetime. I'd like to see it come this year."
NOTES: Bryant got a handshake from Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey as he walked off the floor after the game. ... The Nuggets have lost 18 straight playoff games when scoring fewer than 90 points. ... Denver was 3 for 19 from long range, their fewest conversions and lowest percentage in a playoff game since April 30, 2007, when they went 2 for 16 against San Antonio. .. The starters for both teams combined to go 7-for-14 from the free throw line. ... The Lakers have never lost consecutive playoff games in Denver.
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