DENVER -- All season long, Kobe Bryant uttered the same words as if they were the refrain to the No. 1 song on iTunes:
"We have a small margin of error, but we're still a championship-caliber team."
After the Los Angeles Lakers' embarrassing 113-96 Game 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets, we know that Bryant got one part of that statement right for sure: The margin for error in Saturday's Game 7 will be miniscule. One foul here or a turned ankle there could dramatically change the outcome. As for the championship-caliber part? The Lakers have lost three of their last four games in the first round to the sixth-seeded Nuggets. Hardly the look of a team destined to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy in triumph next month, wouldn't you say?
Bryant knew the Lakers wouldn't be the favored top dogs this season, what with Miami being out for revenge, Oklahoma City coming of age and Chicago's winning formula of "D + the MVP," but he also didn't think he would be playing with dogs when it mattered most.
Pau Gasol, a four-time All-Star and borderline Hall of Famer when you take into account his international play, helped him win two rings and outlasted the Boston Celtics with an epic 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game 7 of the Finals in the past.
Andrew Bynum, who earned Bryant's respect during the 2010 postseason for dragging his injured leg up and down the court for all 23 games of the Lakers' title run, also earned Bryant's trust this season by making the leap from potential to performer, making the All-Star Game for the first time in his seven-year career.
But on Thursday, with Bryant willing himself through 37 excruciating minutes after battling the stomach flu all day, they were nowhere to be found.
When Bryant was asked if his teammates matched his heart, he eschewed saving face and replied honestly, "No. Of course they didn't."
Bryant (31 points) scored almost three times as many points as Gasol and Bynum did combined (Gasol had just three on 1-for-10 shooting, while Bynum had 11 on 4-for-11).
And Bryant did that after receiving more bags of intravenous fluids (four -- two before the game and two at halftime) than Gasol grabbed rebounds (three -- the lowest board total Gasol had in any game all season).
"It's one of those things where psychologically you have to put yourself in a predicament, in a position where you have no other option but to perform," Bryant said. "You have to emotionally put yourself with your back against the wall and kind of trick yourself, so to speak, to feel that there's no other option but to perform and to battle. When you have that, when you put yourself in that mind state, then your performance shines through. Your talent shines through and it doesn't matter what the defense does, it doesn't matter if you get fouled. It doesn't matter because you're emotionally at a level that's above that. That's the mind state that they have to put themselves in."
Both big men seem to have put the team back into the embarrassing place it was last postseason. Bynum's "closeout games are kind of easy" quote is the new "this team has trust issues." And Gasol, who had played like a true professional all season after living through the Chris Paul trade fiasco, seemed to be haunted by the ghost of 2011 playoffs past when he wilted like lettuce in the microwave.
Of course, focusing solely on Bryant's brilliance and Gasol's and Bynum's struggles ignores the fact that the Nuggets are a more-than-worthy opponent and only had three fewer wins in the regular season than the Lakers did, so it's not like there was some wide gulf between the two teams to begin with.
But that only supports Bryant's small margin of error claim. He knows how formidable a foe Denver is. That's why he dug deep and nearly stole Game 5 with 43 points to try to end it, and it's also why he played in Game 6 despite his hotel bathroom looking like a "scene from 'The Exorcist,'" as he put it, after his bout with gastroenteritis.
Denver is a young, inexperienced team that probably doesn't even know how good it is yet. If you take the Nuggets out in five games, you don't let them ever find out. If you let them live to see Game 7, well, anything can happen.
Bryant tried to put a positive spin on things, noting that the Houston Rockets took the Lakers to Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals in 2009 despite being undermanned, and Sacramento took L.A. the distance in the first round in 2000, but part of him also has to remember that his Lakers were up 3-1 on Phoenix in the first round in 2006 before coughing up the next three games and thus, the series.
That Lakers team that lost to Phoenix was Bryant at his best and a bunch of scrubs. Bryant averaged a career-high 35.4 points per game that season while he shared the court with the likes of Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and Brian Cook. Looking back, it's understandable that L.A. ultimately lost the series. But this year? With this team? Bryant's still near his best (31.2 points per game in the playoffs), while Bynum and Gasol are starting to look like liabilities, just as Smush & Co. were.
"Game 7 is a huge game for us," Gasol said. "It's a game where it's all about heart. It's all about bringing it, and that's what we have to do."
Gasol was then asked, after perhaps the worst game of his 11-year career, whether the Lakers should be concerned if it indeed is all about heart.
"No," Gasol said. "It's not a concern. It's something that we got to do. We got to be as strong and united as ever to be able to overcome these tough to losses that we just had."
Maybe that's the resolve Bryant can see in Gasol and Bynum and the rest of the roster that all of us can't when he calls them a championship-caliber team.
One thing we can all agree on, however, is that the Lakers' margin for error right now appears to be shrinking even smaller by the minute.