Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 5/12/12

LOS ANGELES -- The Lakers still have a long way to go to be NBA champions again, but they did prove Saturday night they still have pride and toughness.

The Lakers brought a heightened intensity to hold off the gutty Denver Nuggets, 96-87, in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series and advance to the Western Conference semifinals, starting Monday night in Oklahoma City.

Pau Gasol had 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists in an effort reminiscent of his epic Game 7 in the 2010 NBA Finals vs. Boston. Andrew Bynum added 16 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks, and Steve Blake chipped in his playoff career-high 19 points off the Lakers' bench.

"No better time to play the game than situations like that," Blake said of Game 7.

Denver was fueled by point guard Ty Lawson and forward Al Harrington, who each scored 24 points, but they combined to launch 16 3-point shots as the Nuggets failed to run-and-gun their way to the second round.

"Power won over pace. Size won over speed," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "We need to get stronger."

The Lakers seemed to have gained control of the game shortly after halftime with a 62-46 lead at the 7:22 mark. They got there on a nifty lefty layup by Kobe Bryant.

Then everything fell apart for the Lakers, whose defensive intensity went missing again. They have blown many leads this season, and they did it again.

With Lawson scoring 13 of Denver's 26 third-quarter points, Denver roared back for a 68-68 tie on Harrington's free throws.

Bryant got to the line then but deflated Staples Center anew by missing his first free throw. He made the next to give the Lakers a 69-68 lead, which they carried only temporarily into the fourth quarter.

Harrington, who had been quiet this series while fighting torn knee cartilage and a broken nose, opened the final period with a reverse layup as he proved too fast for Gasol. Denver took a 73-69 lead when Harrington nailed a 3-pointer with 10:44 left, and Lakers coach Mike Brown called a timeout.

"We could have gotten rattled," Brown said. "We could have tightened up at that point in the game, but we didn't."

Bryant played a steady team game with 17 points and eight assists. He entered Saturday night with a 4-1 career record in Game 7s, the lone loss coming when Phoenix rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Lakers in 2006. That was also the last time (eighth overall) any team rallied to win after being down 3-1 in the NBA playoffs.

The excitement of Game 7 was new to the Nuggets, who didn't have a player with any Game 7 experience. Denver entered this postseason with the lowest average age of any playoff team except Philadelphia.

Even veteran Nuggets coach Karl admitted to feeling ill at ease in this scenario.

"I can't deny this is the most nervous I've been in a long time," Karl said before the game.

Karl said his butterflies kicked in late Friday night and carried through the whole day Saturday. But his message to the Nuggets was that after fighting through the emotion and intensity continuing through the "first couple timeouts, it's going to be a basketball game."

The Nuggets were solid early, though, getting excellent energy again from rookie power forward Kenneth Faried although he picked up his third foul in the second quarter.

Lawson refined his shooting stroke with personal coach Ivory Manning before Lawson poured in 32 points in the Nuggets' Game 6 victory, and Saturday night Lawson was 4-for-5 from the field in the first quarter, leading all scorers with nine points to go with two assists and no turnovers.

Lawson cooled off in the second quarter with Blake defending him better than Lakers starter Ramon Sessions did. And Blake also was sharp from 3-point range also, helping the Lakers establish a 48-42 lead at halftime.

Blake matched Lawson's 11 points, and the Lakers also got 13 points, including a buzzer-beating tip-in of Bynum's miss by the previously slumping Gasol.

"It's tough," Lawson said. "We played together and played as a team. Just the way it went down is kind of tough for us. We fought hard and we showed a lot of energy. Next year, we're going to be even better."

NOTES: The Lakers will have their depth tested by the schedule for the Oklahoma City series. It features back-to-back games Friday and Saturday at Staples Center for Games 3 and 4. ... Karl is good friends with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, a fellow North Carolina Tar Heel alum, and said they'll spend time together in the offseason. Karl said he also has a connection with the Lakers because his son, Coby, played for the Lakers: "He knows a lot of guys on the team. It's a special stage for me." ... The Lakers came into the game with a 15-8 all-time record in Game 7s, but they were 14-1 at home. ... The Nuggets' only previous Game 7s in club history were in the 1994 Western Conference semifinals vs. Utah and the 1978 Western Conference semifinals vs. Milwaukee, going 1-1. ... Kobe Bryant finished fourth in the NBA MVP voting for this season in results announced by the league Saturday.

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