pau gasol

Pau Gasol was consumed by determination, holding off Kenneth Faried with one arm and relentlessly tipping the ball at the hoop with the other in the fourth quarter of Game 7. One, two, three, four - five! - offensive rebounds later, the ball finally surrendered and dropped through the hoop.

A few minutes later, the truth was as undeniable as that 7-foot Spaniard. Although the Nuggets drove them to the brink of playoff collapse, the Los Angeles Lakers still have the tenacity to win on the biggest nights of the postseason.

Even when Kobe Bryant doesn’t lead them.

Gasol had 23 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots, Metta World Peace scored 15 points in his return from a seven-game suspension, and the Lakers outlasted Denver for a thrilling 96-87 victory Saturday night to win their first-round series.

Steve Blake scored a playoff career-high 19 points and Bryant had a quiet 17 points and eight assists against regular double-teams for the Lakers, who blew a 16-point lead in the second half before surviving a finale with wild momentum swings and furious physical play.

With Gasol leading the Lakers’ emotional effort - exemplified by those five offensive rebounds on a single, unbelievable tip play with 7:10 left - the Lakers narrowly avoided becoming the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 series lead…

Andrew Bynum had 16 points, a career playoff-high 18 rebounds and six blocked shots for Los Angeles, which must open the second round Monday night in Oklahoma City against the second-seeded Thunder.

Ty Lawson and Al Harrington scored 24 points apiece for the sixth-seeded Nuggets, who committed 19 turnovers and managed just 7-of-27 shooting in the fourth quarter. Arron Afflalo scored 15 points in just the third Game 7 in franchise history for the Nuggets, who have lost in the first round in eight of the last nine postseasons - but never with this much excitement…

World Peace hit four 3-pointers and energized Los Angeles with tough defense in his return. The former Ron Artest missed Los Angeles’ regular-season finale and the first six games against Denver for viciously elbowing Oklahoma City’s James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year and one of his probable defensive assignments in the next round.

– Reported by Greg Beacham of the Associated Press