First, Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets got scalding hot in the opening quarter, then the Lakers' Trevor Ariza got into foul trouble in the third period, and that's how Kobe Bryant got stuck trying to "wrestle with a bear," as he put it, in the fourth.
Anthony scored 39 points in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, but Bryant scored one more than Anthony. Denver finished with 103 points, but the Lakers had two more than the Nuggets on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
Less than 24 hours after their compelling one-on-one battle down the stretch, Bryant couldn't stop talking about Anthony's brute strength on the court. And get this: Bryant said Anthony is stronger than LeBron James.
That's LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That's LeBron James, the leading scorer in the playoffs so far.
That's LeBron James, the league's MVP for 2008-09.
"He's a strong (dude)," Bryant said of Anthony on Wednesday afternoon, using a far more colorful adjective for the word "dude."
"LeBron is strong up here (in the shoulders and chest). Carmelo is strong all over."
For the record, the tale of the tape favors James, who is 6-foot-8, 240 pounds.
Anthony is a close second at 6-8, 220.
Bryant is 6-6, 205, which makes him look a little like the kid brother.
He guarded Denver shooting guard Dahntay Jones to start Game 1, but then switched to point guard Chauncey Billups after Billups opened with a quick basket and a couple of assists. He then checked J.R. Smith during the middle portion of the game.
Then, after Ariza got into foul trouble, he shifted to Anthony in crunch time.
Bryant scored 18 of his team-leading 40 points in the fourth quarter.
Anthony had nine of his team-leading 39 points in the final period.
Bryant played 43 minutes, 21 seconds, and did not rest in the second half.
Anthony played 40:23, and had only a short rest in the second half.
On the day after their battle royal on the perimeter and in the paint, Bryant admitted he was fatigued. He also said he was more worn out after the Lakers eliminated the Houston Rockets in Game 7 of their second-round series Sunday afternoon.
If the Lakers are to win Game 2 tonight and seize control of the best-of-7 series, they are going to have to find a way to get Bryant some defensive help. Bryant said he expected Ariza to have a better game against Anthony tonight.
"I felt like he did OK on Carmelo," Bryant said. "Carmelo is just a phenomenal player, and Trevor hasn't had a chance to play against him too much. So, I think there's some things that he'll learn from (Game 1) to carry over to the next one."
It wasn't as if Anthony faked Ariza out of his high tops Tuesday.
Ariza was often close enough to know what kind of chewing gum Anthony prefers. Anthony started the game by scoring 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting in the first quarter.
Anthony slowed somewhat in the second quarter and then picked it up again in the third, when he made 3 of 4 shots en route to 10 points.
Ariza drew three fouls in the third and played only 5:57. He was scoreless in the quarter.
The Lakers made a defensive switch in the fourth quarter, and Bryant helped to hold Anthony scoreless over the game's final 3:24. Pau Gasol contributed a crucial play when he took a charge on a hard-driving Anthony with 2:07 remaining.
Meanwhile, Bryant worked his offensive magic and the Lakers claimed Game 1.
"It got to a point in the game where Trevor was having problems staying out of foul trouble in the third quarter," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
"Carmelo continued to stay hot, and Kobe made that switch and we went back to how we normally play with him taking on a tough guy and us helping him out in situations where he needs help.
"He gave up a lot of weight to Carmelo and it exhausted him (Tuesday) night, but he did the job we had to have done to win the game."
Jackson said the initial swap of defensive assignments, with Bryant moving from Jones to Billups, was designed to prevent Billups from exploiting the Lakers with an effective pick-and-roll on the perimeter. In the end, it backfired.
"We liked to make something else happen," Jackson said. "What we got was Carmelo going like crazy. He's a problem matchup for us. We'll throw a number of people in his way and hope he doesn't have that stroke as fine-tuned as it was (Tuesday)."