As expected, Kobe takes over for Lakers

DENVER (AP) -- With Shaquille O'Neal out of the lineup, everybody in the arena knew that Kobe Bryant would get the ball in the second half.

Bryant did as expected, scoring 22 of his 28 points in the final two quarters and making a 20-footer that barely beat the shot clock with 55 seconds left to lift the Los Angeles Lakers past the Denver Nuggets 87-86 Wednesday night.

"We knew Kobe was going to kick it up a notch in the second half," Denver coach Mike Evans said.

Added Nuggets guard Nick Van Exel, "We all know how Kobe is. He made some big shots."

The biggest came when Bryant grabbed a loose ball after a missed
shot on the Lakers' end and put up the winning basket.

"That's crunch time," Bryant said. "The shot clock was low. I ran out and got the ball and knew I could get up over the defender."

The Nuggets had three shots on their last possession, but James Posey's desperation shot at the buzzer was off the mark.

"The game was in question all the way until the buzzer sounded," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "It was a flurry of a finish, and we were lucky to get a win tonight.

"Kobe had a great fourth quarter, and we were able to pull it

The Lakers won despite shooting only 39 percent and scoring just 14 points on 5-of-20 shooting in the final period.

Rick Fox had 17 points and Samaki Walker had 14 points and 11
rebounds for the Lakers, who were without O'Neal for the fifth
straight game because of an arthritic big toe on his right foot.

Denver, losing for the sixth time in seven games, got 25 points from Nick Van Exel and 22 from Voshon Lenard.

Avery Johnson scored Denver's first nine points of the fourth
quarter to give Denver a five-point lead, 80-75, with 6:21 left,
and Van Exel made a running one-hander in the lane for an 86-82
lead with 2:31 remaining.

The Nuggets didn't score again, however.

Bryant, who hit a 14-foot turnaround basket earlier, made a
10-footer in the lane with 2:12 to go.

Samaki Walker added a free throw to cut the deficit to 86-85,
and Bryant then hit the clincher.

O'Neal, who has completed the minimum stay on injured reserve (five games), expects to return to action Friday against Phoenix.

Lenard opened the game with back-to-back 3-pointers as Denver took a 6-0 lead, but Fox then hit three straight baskets to trigger a 14-4 run for the Lakers. Van Exel scored nine straight Denver points later in the quarter.

Devean George's 3-pointer from the corner gave the Lakers a
seven-point lead early in the second quarter. Mitch Richmond's
3-pointer gave Los Angeles its biggest lead of the half, 37-28,
with seven minutes left.

Denver, getting a pair of fastbreak baskets, outscored Los
Angeles 18-6 the remainder of the period, taking a 46-43 lead at
halftime on Lenard's 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Bryant scored 14 points in the third quarter to keep it close.
He had 10 straight Laker points early in the period, and Lenard and
Van Exel countered for Denver. Walker's slam gave Los Angeles a
73-71 lead entering the final quarter.

Game notes
Los Angeles is 4-3 this season without O'Neal. ... The
Lakers began a stretch of 13 road games out of 18 games. ... Clyde
Drexler, named a Nuggets assistant coach on Monday, spent his first
game on the bench. Drexler had been the team's special assistant to
the general manager. ... The Lakers have won all three meetings
with Denver this season and four in a row overall. ... The Nuggets
are a season-low 10 games below .500 (10-20).

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