LA Lakers 121, Denver 93

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LOS ANGELES (TICKER) —As expected, the All-Star break did nothing to slow Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Bryant continued his scoring barrage with 42 points - all in the first three quarters - as the Lakers rolled to a 121-93 rout of the overmatched Denver Nuggets in the opener of a home-and-home series.

After equaling a season high with 46 points against the New York Knicks on Thursday, Bryant toyed with the lowly Nuggets en route to his 10th 40-point game of the season.

It was another highlight-reel performance for Bryant, who hit 12-of-20 shots from the field. The superstar guard also made 17-of-21 of free throws and mixed in some breathtaking dunks.

Bryant has reached 40 points in four of his last six games, averaging 40.5 in that span.

“Because of our offense, I’ve been able to get the ball into position where I could do something quickly,” Bryant said. “By the time (the double-team) comes, it’s too late and I pick my spots. I try to let the offense work for me as much as possible. My teammates are getting me the ball where I could just catch and shoot.”

“It’s really fun to watch Kobe,” Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal said. “He’s my choice for the MVP. He’s playing at a high level. Everybody is following his lead.”

O’Neal added 20 points for the three-time defending champion Lakers, who extended their season-high winning streak to six games and pulled within one-half game of Houston for the final Western Conference playoff berth.

Juwan Howard scored all of his 18 points in the first half for Denver, which gets another crack at Los Angeles on Wednesday at the Pepsi Center.

With no one on the Denver roster capable of guarding him, Bryant had his way from the start, scoring 13 points in the first quarter to help the Lakers open a 32-22 lead.

A basket by Vincent Yarborough got the Nuggets within 37-32 with under seven minutes left in the half, but the 1-2 punch of Bryant and O’Neal began to take over.

O’Neal fed Bryant for an alley-oop dunk to fuel an 8-0 run. Bryant and O’Neal made two foul shots apiece before Bryant capped the surge with a fadeaway jumper for a 45-32 lead with 4:18 left before halftime.

Bryant netted 23 points in the half, helping the Lakers to a 58-45 lead. Los Angeles shot 54 percent (20-of-37) over the opening 24 minutes.

“Kobe did what Kobe’s been doing, he’s feeling it,” Nuggets guard Chris Whitney said. “If I knew (how to stop him), then he wouldn’t have had 40 points or whatever he had tonight. He’s a great player and he’s in a great rhythm right now, so we have to make every shot tough for him.”

A dunk by Yarborough with 5:22 left in the third quarter had the Nuggets within 76-60 before the Lakers put away the game with a 24-6 surge to close the quarter.

Bryant scored 13 points during the run, including a scintillating dunk with 3:04 in the period when he dribbled around his back, moved around Yarborough and buried a 360 dunk that sent the Staples Center crowd into a frenzy.

“I’ve gone behind my back before,” Bryant said. “The defender was trailing me. He tried to cut me off. The best way to get to the basket is the dunk, and I feel I’m in a good rhythm.”

“We should have never allowed him to get in that position,” Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “Kobe is playing at a very high level.”

Bryant scored 19 points in the quarter as the Lakers outscored the Nuggets, 42-21.

Samaki Walker added 14 points and Derek Fisher, Devean George and rookie Kareem Rush 10 apiece for Los Angeles, which shot 53 percent (45-of-85) and held a 47-33 rebounding advantage.

Yarborough finished with 18 points and Whitney contributed 14 for the Nuggets, who shot 46 percent (38-of-83) and committed 20 turnovers that the Lakers converted into 22 points.

Denver has lost nine of its last 11 games.

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