LOS ANGELES (AP) - Kobe Bryant stared straight ahead, delivering his answer without emotion. His teammates were out of earshot, though Bryant undoubtedly told them the same thing.
Asked what it would take to close out Denver in six games, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar replied, "Be cold-blooded, go out there and execute. We have to stay focused and poised and try to cut them up."
Led by Bryant's merciless efficiency, the Lakers sliced and diced the Nuggets to advance to the NBA finals for the second consecutive year. Los Angeles turned what had been a back-and-forth series into a rout Friday night, winning 119-92 on the road.
"Now we're in a place where we didn't get the job accomplished last year," Bryant said. "Hopefully we will this time."
Battered, bruised and just plain exhausted, the Lakers took Saturday off. They'll get a few days' rest before the finals begin Thursday. Orlando leads Cleveland 3-2 and can clinch the Eastern Conference title Saturday night at home in Game 6.
The Lakers will open at home if Dwight Howard and Orlando win or at Cleveland if LeBron James and the Cavaliers prevail.
"We're back to where we wanted to get to and we're probably playing at the highest level that we have all year," Luke Walton said.
It hasn't been easy.
Critics have questioned the Lakers' effort throughout the playoffs, especially when they were forced to a seventh game by an undermanned Houston team in the conference semifinals.
They have seemingly turned it on and off at times, getting thumped 120-101 in Game 4 at Denver before coming home and dominating the Nuggets in the fourth quarter of Game 5, then dissecting them with precision in the elimination game.
"We didn't allow the early energy and emotion of the home team and their crowd to force us to play from behind," Derek Fisher said. "That was a real key for us, mentally as well. We had a very solid start and we were able to sustain it for four quarters."
The Lakers overwhelmed the Nuggets with a 21-7 run in the second quarter, with Bryant scoring 11, to lead 53-40 at halftime. Denver failed to make a serious run in the second half.
"That was definitely killer instinct. That was definitely as focused of a game as we've played all year," said Walton, who had 10 points. "We've heard in the media people questioning us. We've never questioned our own ability. It's nice to put a full 48 (minutes) together in one of the biggest games of our year."
For the second consecutive game, Bryant got his teammates involved while he passed out of double-teams. Sure, he scored 35 points, but he also had 10 assists and counseled his teammates to keep their focus.
Pau Gasol added 20 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, Lamar Odom scored 20 and Trevor Ariza 17 while helping the Lakers shoot 57 percent. The bench, including Walton, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, injected energy. The Lakers made all 24 of their free throws.
"It was important to step through that door, seize the opportunity. Don't wait," Fisher said. "Now is our time to finish what we didn't finish last season."
A year ago, the Lakers breezed into the finals with a 12-3 playoff record before losing to Boston in six games. This year, they're 12-6, having been tested by the Rockets and the Nuggets in arduous back-to-back series after beating Utah 4-1 in the first round.
"We're more prepared to play against teams that are physical or extremely athletic or play a certain style of offense or defense," Fisher said. "It doesn't guarantee us any success going forward, but I definitely think we've learned from some of the things we've been through in the last three or four weeks."
The Lakers are in the NBA finals for a record 30th time. They've won 15 titles, but none since Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal teamed for three in a row ending in 2002.
This time, Bryant will be seeking to quiet everyone who reminds him he hasn't won a championship without O'Neal, while coach Phil Jackson is going for his record 10th title.
Their humiliating 131-92 dismissal by Boston in Game 6 last year still stings.
"It's about winning it," Ariza said. "That's what we're focused on."
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