Kobe's 45 Lifts Lakers

Kobe Bryant thought it might have been the game of his life.

"This is probably my most efficient game," he said Thursday night after scoring 45 points to lead the Los Angeles Lakers over the Houston Rockets 99-94 for their fourth straight win.

He made 20 of 26 shots, and the points were his most in a non-overtime game. Bryant, who scored a season-high 51 points against Golden State in a 125-122 overtime loss on Dec. 6, had 26 points in the first half alone, making his first 10 shots.

He added six points in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth.

"I think it's the highest percentage I've ever shot since being in the league," he said. "I felt very good and I felt in rhythm. My legs felt good and my follow-through was there on my shot."

A day away from practice Wednesday helped Bryant's legs.

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  • "I felt more fresh tonight," he said. "All I did yesterday was sleep. I only had one meal. I just tried to relax."

    Lakers coach Phil Jackson is getting accustomed to such performances. It was the fourth time this season Bryant has scored 40 or more points.

    "Kobe had a great night," Jackson said. "Last night, there were four or five players who got over 40 points in the league, so it's not like he's the only one doing it. But in our offensive system, he's the lead guard, which makes him the starting point of our offense.

    "I thought his offensive rebounding and his defense were very good tonight. Right now his game is as good as anyone in the league."

    Shaquille O'Neal, who scored 25 points and had 12 rebounds, agreed.

    "Kobe had a phenomenal game," he said. "He made all kinds of shots out there. We're going to get te bulk of the shots. Our offense is not a problem. We just have to play good defense."

    The Rockets were impressed by Bryant's shooting.

    "It's kind of tough to beat a team when their star player goes 20 for 26," Steve Francis said. "He had a great game. He shot the ball well and he got some calls. My hat goes off to him."

    Coach Rudy Tomjanovich seconded that opinion.

    "Kobe Bryant was just too much," he said. "He was amazing. A play that typified it came in the fourth quarter when he was on a break and we had two guys back on him. He still scored and got fouled. He hurt us from the outside and the inside."

    Maurice Taylor led the Rockets with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Hakeem Olajuwon had 16 points, Steve Francis 14, Walt Williams 13, Moochie Norris 12 and Cuttino Mobley 11 as the Rockets lost their third straight.

    The Lakers broke from a 74-all tie and took an 82-78 with 7:34 left on an alley-oop slam by Bryant. But the Rockets came back to lead 90-89 on a 3-pointer by Mobley and a jumper by Taylor with 4:21 to go.

    The Rockets strategy then became to send O'Neal to the free throw line over and over. O'Neal made 1 of 2 free throws to make it 90-all with 3:19 to play and repeated the feat for a 91-90 lead with 2:52 left.

    He again hit 1 of 2 with 2:26 to play for a 92-90 lead. Bryant's jumper with 1:35 remaining stretched it to 94-90.

    Olajuwon tipped in a basket with 1:10 left to close it to 94-92 but O'Neal again hit 1 of 2 free throws for a 95-92 lead with 52 seconds remaining.

    Bryant made a jumper from the top of the key with 26 seconds to play and a breakaway slam with 11 seconds left.

    The teams traded baskets for the first four minutes of the game before the Lakers pulled ahead 17-12, with Bryant scoring 11 points. He had 18 by the end of the quarter as the Lakers led 28-26.

    O'Neal scored eight points in the first 6@1/2 minutes of the second quarter as the Lakers expanded their lead to 44-35. The lead reached 48-38 with 4:47 left in the first half on a Bryant jumper.

    But a 9-0 run by Houston, five of the points by Francis, narrowed the gap. Los Angeles led 52-47 at halftime.

    Houston went oa 14-0 run to take a 64-57 lead with 6:04 left in the third. Fox scored 10 points the final six minutes of the period.

    Notes

  • Steve Francis returned after missing Tuesday's game against the Spurs because of an ankle sprain. He reaggravated the injury with 5:03 left in the third but returned to start the fourth quarter.
  • Francis is the only NBA player to average six rebounds and six assists.

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