LOS ANGELES (AP)—Michael Cooper came full circle Sunday night, coaching against the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time.
Kobe Bryant made sure he didn’t leave with a win.
Bryant scored the Lakers’ first 14 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 42, lifting Los Angeles to a 99-91 victory over the Denver Nuggets. It was his third consecutive 40-point game, including 42 against Miami and 48 against Toronto.
“Some nights are going to be like that, but it’s not something we’re going to rely on,” Bryant said. “We have had many games where we have had a total team effort and complete balance, offensively.”
Bryant carried the Lakers despite a sprained thumb on his shooting hand.
“Some of our practices are more physical than the games,” Bryant said. “Sometimes you get bumps and bruises, and in my case, my thumb landed on Jermaine Jones’ knee and it hurt me pretty bad. I woke up this morning and it was kind of swollen.”
Bryant had the thumb wrapped before the game and it seemed to affect him early. He had just 11 points in the first half and blew a breakaway dunk in the second quarter.
But he scored 17 points in the third, helping the Lakers build a 79-63 lead, then took over in the fourth.
He provided the game-breaker with 1:47 left, a fast-break layup after Caron Butler blocked Carmelo Anthony’s eight-foot jumper at the other end. Bryant added a 21-footer and two free throws to help seal it.
No other Laker scored in the fourth until the final 31.2 seconds, when Butler sank four free throws and Chucky Atkins made two.
It was a rude welcome back to Los Angeles for Cooper, who contributed to five NBA titles in the 1980s during his 12-year career with the Lakers. He was promoted to head coach last Tuesday after the firing of Jeff Bzdelik, and won in his debut Friday night against Philadelphia.
Cooper is the eighth player to coach an NBA club after playing on a Lakers championship team—including Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Pat Riley, Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott, Jim Cleamons and Eddie Jordan.
Cooper earned NBA defensive player of the year honors in 1986-87 and made it onto the league’s all-defensive team eight times. Even then, he knew he was cut out for coaching.
“That went back to the 80s—myself, Byron and Magic just talking on the bus about becoming a coach,” said Cooper, who won two WNBA championships with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Lamar Odom had 12 points and 15 rebounds for the Lakers, who won back-to-back games for the sixth time this season, but have yet to win three in a row under coach Rudy Tomjanovich. Chris Mihm finished with 10 points and eight boards.
Anthony led Denver with 27 points in his second game back since missing six with a sprained ankle. Kenyon Martin returned to the Denver lineup after missing Friday’s game with a sore back, finishing with 11 points in 28 minutes.
“Kenyon’s not fully healthy, but he’s a warrior,” Cooper said. “He wants to compete, and he doesn’t want to leave the guys out there hanging. He came to play, and the rustiness from not being able to practice showed.”
Martin, playing with five fouls, made a layup that capped an 11-2 Denver run and narrowed the gap to 81-74 with 7:47 left. Bryant answered that 24 seconds later with an eight-footer—the Lakers’ first basket of the fourth quarter. Los Angeles shot just 4-of-17 in the final period.
“That’s what defense does, and that’s what we try to stress,” Cooper said. “It’s hard to play defense for 48 minutes—and it’s a little different for us because the team has always been geared to run, run, run. But defense will keep you in these games, and that’s what kept us in there at the end.”
The Nuggets ended the first half with a 15-2 run, slicing a 15-point deficit to 44-42 as Bryant sat out the final 5:18 before the break with three fouls. Anthony missed his first five shots and nine of 12 in the half.
Nuggets C Marcus Camby sat out after straining his back in the first quarter against the 76ers, and G Greg Buckner remained sidelined because of a groin strain. … In-between pregame handshakes with old friends from the Lakers organization, Cooper told reporters that coaching against his old team for the first time would have been much different had they still been at the Forum instead of Staples Center—their home for the last six seasons. “It’s a lot easier here,” Cooper said. “I mean, a lot of great things have been done with the Laker organization, but my playing days and my fondest memories are over on Prairie (Avenue) in Inglewood. Seeing Magic and Worthy and the other players’ (retired) jerseys up at the top just adds a specialness to it.” … After his retirement as a player, Cooper was an assistant coach with the Lakers from 1994-97 before going to the WNBA.