Kobe Bryant hasn’t been overly cordial this week, slipping out a side door after the Lakers lost Monday in Portland, preferring the silence of an empty team bus over extended postgame analysis.
He also declined to speak to reporters after a Wednesday afternoon shoot-around, furthering the notion that he was all business these days.
In other words, it was a bad idea for Houston forward Ron Artest to start trash-talking to him during Wednesday night’s game.
Bryant responded by scoring 13 points in the third quarter and 18 in the fourth as the short-handed Lakers held off the Rockets, 102-96, at the Toyota Center.
Bryant had only six points at halftime but finished with 37 on excellent 14-for-23 shooting. He also had six assists, five rebounds and four steals as the Lakers won while Lamar Odom served a one-game suspension for leaving the bench during an altercation against Portland.
A few years ago, Bryant pleaded with the Lakers’ front office to trade for Artest. On Wednesday, he merely seemed offended by Artest’s in-game antics, calling the dialogue “edgy” and scoffing when asked about their one-on-one “battle.”
“It wasn’t much of a battle . . . I kicked his . . . ,” Bryant said. “We’ve had some battles in the past and he’s gotten the best of me a few times. [Wednesday], I got the best of him.”
Artest, other than an impressive six steals, had a miserable night, scoring 11 points on four-for-16 shooting.
“We are not friends out there at all,” Artest said. “After the season, we might play pick-up games or something like that. Not now.”
The Lakers (51-13) moved half a game ahead of Cleveland for the league’s best record and resurrected what looked like a ragged trip.
They still have to play at San Antonio tonight before returning home, but they needed this one against a quality opponent.
The Rockets (42-24) are third in the Western Conference and had won 11 of their last 13 games before Wednesday. The Lakers managed to win in Houston two months ago with help from Bryant’s late three-pointer, but that was with Andrew Bynum and Odom.
Josh Powell replaced Odom in the lineup, and there was another surprise among the staring five: Trevor Ariza got the nod instead of Luke Walton.
Ariza had eight points and six rebounds in almost 30 minutes. He had a pact with Lakers Coach Phil Jackson in which he plays solely with the reserves, but that was broken Wednesday.
“It was kind of like Hitler’s [pact] with Russia,” Jackson said.
The Lakers broke a three-game road losing streak and also ended the Rockets’ 12-game home winning streak.
They trailed at halftime, 51-40, Bryant taking only six shots and making three.
“He was going east and west instead of north and south,” Jackson said.
The Lakers’ defense was going strictly south, letting the Rockets shoot 56.1% in the first half, but Jackson spoke longer than usual and with added gusto in the locker room at halftime. In fact, the players barely made it back to the court in time to loft a few shots before the third quarter began.
“We had really a wonderful halftime talk,” Jackson said.
Something obviously worked.
The defense held the Rockets to 45.7% shooting the second half, and Bryant erupted in the fourth quarter.
He picked up the ball after losing it in traffic and tossed in a back-to-the-basket layup after being fouled by Luis Scola. Then he avoided an attempted steal by Artest near the arc and drilled a three-pointer as the shot clock wound down.
He added a 19-foot fadeaway from the right wing that provided a 96-92 lead with 1:05 left, and then converted a game-breaking three-point play on a 16-footer after being fouled by Shane Battier.
The Rockets’ marketing department tried their best, handing out red “Beat L.A.” T-shirts to fans as they arrived. It was harmless, really, compared with the response Artest garnered from Bryant.
“Ronnie’s a funny guy,” Jackson said. “Sometimes he gets carried away with things. We have a lot of respect for him as a player. [Wednesday], Kobe had his way.”