DENVER -- There was an alternative Big Three making the clinching plays in the Los Angeles Lakers' 92-88 Game 4 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.
The Lakers were entrenched in a back-and-forth game in the fourth quarter with the chance to go up 3-1 in the series or knotted it 2-2 hanging in the balance. Their three All-Stars, with nine rings between them, were lifted to victory by two guys playing in the first playoff series of their career (Hill and Sessions) and another who has never gotten past the second round in nine seasons in the league (Blake).
In the final frame, Bryant, Gasol and Bynum had two points apiece.
Meanwhile, Hill scored three, Sessions scored five and Blake scored eight.
When the game was tied with 48.1 seconds left, Gasol passed to Sessions in the corner to put L.A. up 89-86.
"Kobe was drawing so much attention off the pick-and-roll, where it was one of those things where I guess they forgot about me in the corner," Sessions said.
The next time down the court, Bryant found Blake in the opposite corner to double their lead to six with 18.9 seconds left.
"I was ready," Blake said. "I wasn't surprised at all."
As much as Fisher and Odom were vital to the Lakers' success just based on the shots that they hit or the rebounds they grabbed, their true value to the team was the confidence they instilled in Bryant and the team camaraderie they created by earning his trust.
So, while Fisher will be waiting for the Lakers as a second-round opponent with the Oklahoma City Thunder whenever the Lakers close out Denver, now Bryant has two point guards to pass to who live for the moment.
And while Odom's absence has been felt on the bench all season, as the Lakers lost the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Hill's playoff averages of 7.0 points and 9.3 rebounds don't look too shabby matched up against the 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounds Odom averaged last year in the playoffs.
"Those guys are so good at drawing double teams and they trust us," Blake said. "That's what it's going to take to beat really good teams, to trust each other, and it worked out for us."
Bryant has the supreme confidence that five championship rings brings to a player, but he also has the memories that those title runs burned in his head. Sure, he doesn't win all five without Shaquille O'Neal, Gasol and Bynum, but he also doesn't do it without the contributions of role players like Fisher, Trevor Ariza, Rick Fox, Brian Shaw, Ron Harper, Shannon Brown, Robert Horry and on and on and on.
Reciprocating trust is the only way Bryant can groom Sessions, Blake and Hill to be the next wave of those guys.
"In the third quarter I hit Sessions for an open shot, Blake for an open shot and Matt Barnes for an open shot on pretty much successive possessions, and they missed all three of them," Bryant said. "I think George [Karl] knew, observant as he is. He saw I was pissed and so he didn't think I was going to trust them at the end of the game to knock down those shots. But, they stepped up and knocked them down."
There were times back in the late '90s and early oughts, when it was Bryant who had to earn that same trust from his accomplished teammates. So, he knows.
"Fish and I started somewhere," Bryant said. "We were playing a ton with Harper, who had three championships, and we kind of had to learn from them. But we had to start somewhere. This is the beginning for them."
Every championship run includes growth of a team and the Lakers looked more like a cohesive group on Sunday than they have all season. Bynum cheered for Hill when he was taking his usual minutes in the fourth quarter, and when it was time for Hill to sit while Bynum closed out the game, Hill was the biggest cheerleader Sessions and Blake had.
"I was jumping out of the seat," Hill said. "I was jumping out of the seat, man."
There's reason to be excited. Who knows if the Lakers' Big Three will be enough this year when Miami and Oklahoma City have Big Threes of their own, but if there's an alternative Big Three out there too?
"When you can add one or two or three out there it's big," Sessions said.
Said Blake: "This is the time where it matters."
Trust is what matters. The Lakers are building it.