Tim Duncan had a double-double and San Antonio won 105-96 on Friday night in the teams' first meeting since the Lakers eliminated the Spurs from the Western Conference semifinals last season.
"San Antonio is a team that really knows what they're doing out there because they have the chemistry and they've been with each other for a long time," Bryant said. "We're a young team and we're still trying to figure out how we want to go about things. So it was a good test and a good challenge for us. I'm proud of the way we battled back."
Duncan led five players in double figures with 26 points and 16 rebounds. Manu Ginobili added 18, Tony Parker 16, Rasho Nesterovic 14 and reserve Brent Barry 13. The Spurs passed with abandon, racking up 28 assists while scoring 100-plus points for the second straight game.
"Everybody did a great job sharing the ball and knowing how we want to play," Parker said.
Bryant scored 28 points in 45 minutes and Lamar Odom added 24 points and 11 rebounds. They shot a franchise-low 29 percent in a 104-78 defeat at Utah on Wednesday, when Bryant had 38 points.
"Kobe is great," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He came after us and tried to get it done and almost did it. I would imagine Kobe wants to get it done more than ever."
The Lakers trailed nearly the entire game and were down by 18 points three times in the third quarter.
"We were playing against the San Antonio Spurs -- a team that's won a championship, a team that's won the MVP of the league, so it's going to be hard to come back," Odom said. "The smallest breakdown can kill you."
The Lakers got within six points in the fourth on a 3-pointer by
Chucky Atkins, the kind of shot Bryant relishes making late in games.
That got the Staples Center crowd on its feet, just like in the old days when O'Neal was rumbling up the floor after a thunderous dunk. But the fans quieted down when Bryant was stripped on a drive in the lane with just over two minutes left.
"They are going to cut you up, so it's a learning process for us," Bryant said. "It will be a good measuring stick next time we play them to see how much we have improved."
Caron Butler fouled out, putting Barry at the line where he made both free throws for a 101-93 lead. Jumaine Jones scored on a layin to get the Lakers to 101-95 with 1:49 remaining.
Duncan missed two free-throw attempts, but the Spurs controlled the rebound. He got fouled again and made both to keep the Spurs ahead 103-95 with just over a minute to go.
Chris Mihm, who has succeeded O'Neal as the Lakers' center, was held to eight points in 32 minutes.
"They're a lot different," Duncan said. "They're attacking in different ways. They're also moving the ball and trying to find different ways to get everyone involved."
Bryant and Duncan received offsetting technical fouls in the fourth when both teams jawed in a crowd near the Lakers' free-throw line.
"I think I unintentionally hit him, so I asked him if he was all right," Bryant said. "He said I threw an elbow. I said, 'I didn't throw an elbow.' He said, 'Yes you did.' I said, 'I just
told you I didn't, so what if I did?' And that's how we both got technicals."
Bryant scowled his way through much of the final 12 minutes, annoyed by calls that went against him.
The Spurs extended an 84-73 lead at the start of the fourth when Duncan was out of the game.
Reminiscent of O'Neal, Bryant was spotty from the line in the closing minutes.
Popovich has 398 career victories. ... Los Angeles won last season's series 3-1. ... The Spurs improved to 6-5 at Staples Center.