Lakers hold off Nuggets, clinch playoff berth
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Coach Mike Brown wasn't on the Los Angeles Lakers' bench in a suit and tie. Kobe Bryant was.
Although that's an unlikely scenario for success, the Lakers still took an enormous step toward the postseason thanks to Matt Barnes' outside shooting and Andrew Bynum's inside persistence.
Bynum had 30 points and eight rebounds, Barnes added a season-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, and the Lakers clinched a playoff berth with a 103-97 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Friday night.
Pau Gasol had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Pacific Division-leading Lakers (38-22), who have won three of four without Bryant while the NBA scoring leader rests his bruised shin. Los Angeles also played without Brown, who left Staples Center shortly before tipoff for undisclosed personal reasons.
"You can tell that these guys went out tonight and wanted to represent Mike Brown as best they could, and that's what they did," said assistant coach John Kuester, who didn't give any additional information about Brown's issues after running the team. "They have worked extremely hard, they care about one another, and it's also those types of feelings that are poured out on the floor."
With Bryant shouting instructions and counsel as a virtual assistant coach on the bench, the Lakers gave away another early lead and committed 23 turnovers, yet still took three of four from Denver to win the clubs' season series for the first time in three years. With six games left, Los Angeles is 1 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers for the division lead and the No. 3 playoff seed.
"With Kobe out, guys need to step up, but at the same time, not do too much," said Barnes, who matched his highest-scoring performance in two seasons with the Lakers. "We're so talented, but sometimes we're lazy. When we're lazy, we allow teams to do stuff that shouldn't normally happen. When we play hard, we're a hard team to beat."
Barnes scored six consecutive points after Denver trimmed Los Angeles' lead to one point, hitting a 3-pointer and adding a clutch jumper with 1:29 to play.
After Bynum grabbed 30 rebounds against San Antonio earlier in the week, he faced double- and triple-teams from the moment he touched the ball on most possessions. The All-Star center persevered for a 13-point third quarter in a mature effort from a mercurial player.
"It was big for us to get this third win (without Bryant)," Bynum said. "For our team, especially not having our leader, it was important to come together and get a win."
Andre Miller scored 20 points and Al Harrington added 18 for the Nuggets, who had won five of seven. Arron Afflalo also had 18 for Denver (32-27), which is even with Houston for the seventh playoff spot, one game ahead of ninth-place Phoenix with seven to play.
"We need to use these last seven games to build some momentum," Afflalo said. "We've got a tough little schedule ahead of us, and we're looking forward to it. ... (Barnes) had an exceptional game and hit some big shots down the stretch. That's probably my fault, and they deserved it."
Los Angeles led for all but the opening minutes, going up 87-75 with 9:25 left. Denver trimmed the lead to one point with a 15-4 run capped by Harrington's 3-pointer with 3:38 left, but Barnes hit a clutch 3-pointer and added a free throw and a jumper before throwing a phenomenal half-court alley-oop to Bynum in the final minute.
Denver coach George Karl disagreed with several foul calls in the fourth quarter, but praised the Nuggets' effort.
"We didn't have a lot of luck," Karl said. "But we kept fighting and fighting, and finally found five guys that figured out if you rebound it and go after Bynum, good things would happen."
Bryant is no longer wearing a protective boot. The fifth-leading scorer in NBA history is walking without pain, but must run and jump without pain before he'll return.
Bryant has built a career on playing through any amount of pain, but with the Lakers comfortably in the playoff picture, he apparently feels he can take a brief rest from the compacted regular season. Brown wouldn't speculate on how long Bryant will sit, saying they'll re-evaluate his injury before Sunday's game against the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
NOTES: The Lakers have missed the playoffs just five times in their 64 years of existence, just twice in 33 years under owner Jerry Buss. ... Wilson Chandler missed his seventh straight game for Denver with a strained left hip, while Rudy Fernandez is still sidelined with a strained lower back. ... Kuester also coached the Lakers in February while Brown served a one-game suspension. Kuester was the Detroit Pistons' head coach for the past two seasons before getting fired last summer. ... Barnes got a technical foul with 2:24 left for arguing a call, but Afflalo missed a free throw that would have cut the Lakers' lead to three points with the ball.