Making his first trip to the Rocky Mountain state since charges in his well-publicized rape case were dropped, Bryant will try to lead the Lakers to their first three-game winning streak under new coach Rudy Tomjanovich when they take on the Denver Nuggets.
Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in his room at a Vail-area hotel where she worked in June 2003. The case was about to go to trial when prosecutors dropped the felony sexual assault charge last Sept. 1 because the woman said she would no longer participate.
Bryant avoided a possible prison term, though he still faces a civil suit and repairing a severely tarnished image. It was an experience that forced Bryant to take a deep look at himself and his priorities.
“When I think about last season, I think about what a blessing it was to go through something like that,” Bryant said. “I don’t look at it as a curse. I look at it as a blessing. It got me close to God. God helps you and he carries you through many days.
“It feels like a burden, but there are many people in this world who have bigger crosses to bear. My wife’s healthy, my daughter’s healthy, my family’s healthy. You’ve got to keep that in perspective.”
Bryant has shown he can shake off outside distractions.
Last season, he played four times after spending the day in the courtroom and was stellar each time, hitting a game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat Denver and contributing a 42-point effort in the playoffs against San Antonio.
Bryant also shrugged off a media frenzy and plenty of boos last season in his first trip to Denver after he was accused of sexual assault, finishing with 27 points.
Then again, Bryant always seems to play well against the Nuggets, no matter where they play.
He set the Pepsi Center record with 51 points in February 2003, a night after scoring 42 points against the Nuggets in Los Angeles, and started off this season with 25 points in an opening win against Denver. Last week, Bryant scored the first 14 points of the fourth quarter and 42 overall to lead the Lakers to a 99-91 victory.
In that game, Nuggets interim coach Michael Cooper reportedly told DerMarr Johnson to “lock him up” within earshot of Bryant, and later said he felt the Nuggets had done a good job keeping the Lakers star in check.
Bryant responded by telling The Los Angeles Times: “If that’s keeping me in check, wait until next time.”
Even without the extra incentive, the Nuggets know it isn’t going to be easy.
“Kobe is a great player,” Johnson said. “You can’t guard him by yourself. You need help. He’s got too many moves.”
Bryant, the league’s second-leading scorer, scored 31 on Monday as the Lakers defeated the Timberwolves 105-96 in Minnesota in a rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals. Chucky Atkins had 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, and Chris Mihm had 14 points to go with 17 rebounds for the Lakers.
Los Angeles finished 16-for-35 from 3-point range, one short of the franchise record for both attempts and makes.
Denver is coming off its 17th straight loss at Sacramento, 109-100 on Tuesday.
Andre Miller had 16 points and 11 assists for the Nuggets, who lost their fifth straight and 11th in 12 games overall. With general manager Kiki Vandeweghe watching with concern, the Nuggets dropped to 1-5 under interim coach Cooper by playing dismal defense and repeatedly squandering chances to take the lead in the final three quarters.