DENVER — Trevor Ariza's clutch steals are punching a dagger in Denver's season just as much as Kobe Bryant's big baskets.
For the second time in three games, Ariza stole an inbounds pass in the final minute to help Los Angeles beat the Nuggets, this time 103-97 at the Pepsi Center for a 2-1 lead that restored the Lakers' home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.
Ariza, whose steal of Anthony Carter's lazy lob sealed the Lakers' win in the series opener, sliced in front of Carmelo Anthony to swipe Kenyon Martin's inbounds pass with the Lakers clinging to a two-point lead with 36 seconds left.
Anthony fouled out to prevent the breakaway basket and Ariza sank both free throws for a 99-95 lead.
"Trevor, he's very crafty, he's long, he's fast, he's quick and he's a ball hog," said Bryant, who scored 41 points. "He does a good job of reading those things. It's a great defensive play."
As he did in the first game, Lamar Odom guarded the inbounds, only this time it wasn't the shortest player on the team he was facing, but the 6-foot-9 Martin trying to get the ball in over the Lakers' 6-10 forward.
"He's long, look at him," Sasha Vujacic said of Odom. "He's very long. He's athletic. He's got eyes behind his ears. He knows how to jump all around the ball."
Hounded, K-Mart called timeout, but on the redo, he wasn't so lucky as he led 'Melo too much with the pass and Ariza snatched away both the ball and Denver's shot at a win for the second time in five nights.
"It was kind of deja vu from Game 1," Anthony said.
Ariza thought so, too.
"It was kind of funny," he said. "It was pretty much the same thing, different players. But we got the steal. We got a win, that's the most important thing."
Bryant made four free throws in the final 22 seconds to seal the win after sinking a 3-pointer over J.R. Smith with 1:09 left to put Los Angles ahead for good at 96-95.
"Kobe does that time and time and time and time and time again for game winners," Odom said of Bryant's 3-pointer. "It is routine — for him."
Pau Gasol added 20 points and 11 rebounds.
"I think Gasol was the key to them winning tonight," Anthony said. "Getting him going and him making shots, it made it hard to double-team him and still try to guard Kobe out there."
Anthony scored 21 points but just three after halftime, and Denver lost at home for the first time since March 9.
"I don't really think they did anything different tonight. But I missed some easy shots," said Anthony, who had averaged 35 points in his previous five games but went just 4-for-13.
Before Saturday night, the Nuggets, who had won 16 straight games at home, had been dominant in Denver in the playoffs. They ran away with all six games at Pepsi Center against New Orleans and Dallas by an average of 17.5 points.
The Nuggets led most of the game but were done in by poor decisions and a failure to keep their composure. They shot just 5-for-27 on 3-pointers and committed three technical fouls.
Game 4 is Monday night, when the Lakers and Nuggets will have the Pepsi Center to themselves after World Wrestling Entertainment moved Monday Night Raw to the Staples Center in Los Angeles because of the double booking that WWE chairman Vince McMahon milked for all it was worth.
That doesn't mean the crowd in Denver won't see some elbows, forearms and more trash talking like they did Saturday night, when there were five technicals called, including one on Smith for taunting Vujacic after swishing a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer.
The Nuggets took a 79-71 lead on Smith's bucket. Vujacic, who had just hit a 3-pointer of his own, his first points of the game, nearly stole Billups' pass, but Smith snared it, spun and swished the 3-pointer as the backboard lit up in red and he fell to the floor with the crowd going crazy.
Caught up in the moment, Smith jumped up jawing at Vujacic and was T'd up.
After Bryant swished the technical free throw, Denver would miss its first nine shots of the fourth quarter, finally putting a shot through the hoop on Martin's dunk with 6:34 left.
"I rank this right up there with some of the biggest road wins we've had since I've been a Laker," Bryant said. "Because, in the past we always had guys that had a lot of experience. Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Ron Harper, they've all been through this before. For our guys this is brand new.
"Last year we weren't tested like this. And it goes a long way for us as a ballclub."
Notes: Lakers C Andrew Bynum has been saying he wants to play more minutes and his coach said he can if he plays better defense. He had seven points and four boards in 21 minutes. ... This marked the first time Bryant had scored 40 points twice in one playoff series.