Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum put up their usual big numbers. Their supporting cast came up even bigger, sealing the Los Angeles Lakers' 92-88 victory over Denver on Sunday night that put the Nuggets on the brink of elimination.
Bryant had 22 points and Bynum added 19 to help the Lakers overcome a six-point halftime deficit and take a 3-1 lead in the first-round playoff series that they can wrap up Tuesday night when the series shifts back to Staples Center for Game 5.
Sixth-man Jordan Hill had 12 points and 11 rebounds, and recently acquired guard Ramon Sessions and reserve point guard Steve Blake each hit crucial 3-pointers in the final minute as the Lakers broke free.
Those were the players the Nuggets preferred had the ball in crunch time, and Bryant wasn't at all hesitant to oblige.
"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 (Karl), being observant as he is, saw I was (ticked). I was and 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 Pau 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.
Blake got a bear hug from Bryant during the 20-second timeout.
"Those moments don't scare him," Bryant said.
"It's always good when you get a hug from Kobe. It means you did something right," Blake said. "It was a total team effort for us tonight."
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.
"They got the two 3s to go down at the end of the game," 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, Blake and Hill that did the damage.
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.
The Nuggets, who have hung tough since getting blown out in the series opener, face a daunting task of winning three straight, including two at the Staples Center, where they never led in Games 1 and 2.
"Losing always gets old. Losing is not fun. I'm not unhappy with my team, I'm not happy with where we're at, but we still have a series to play," Karl said. "I don't think it's an impossible challenge. 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: Miller stole the ball from Matt Barnes and drew a clear-path foul from Barnes five minutes before halftime. ... For the second straight game, McGee's mother, Pamela McGee, who played in the WNBA, was seated courtside near the Nuggets' bench. At one point, her son jumped over Bynum, who was whistled for traveling as he found his path to the basket blocked by his counterpart 7-foot center.