LOS ANGELES (AP)—Kobe Bryant’s legs felt heavy and it showed in his 9-for-30 shooting. But he was nearly perfect at the free throw line.
Bryant scored 29 points and made two foul shots with seven seconds remaining, lifting the Los Angeles Lakers to a 99-98 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday night in a matchup of early-season also-rans.
“We were sluggish,” he said. “Physically, it was tough to get going. My legs felt like they were in cement. I just had to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.”
Bryant made 11 of 12 free throws, including the winning pair after being fouled by Bernard Robinson.
“Bernard did a good job of guarding him, but he’s Kobe,” Brevin Knight said. “He’s going to do whatever he can to score or create enough contact to get a foul. He made a good move and he got the call.”
Melvin Ely scored 20 points, Knight added 17, and Emeka Okafor grabbed 12 rebounds for the Bobcats, who lost their ninth in a row on the road. They remain winless in eight games against Western Conference opponents this season.
“It was our basketball game to win and we lost it,” Bobcats coach Bernie Bickerstaff said. “Our commitment to effort was really good, we defended and it’s a handful when you have to chase Kobe all night.”
“Sasha brings energy,” Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. “Guys were moping around the court. We weren’t hustling and playing as hard as we could. There was a hangover from Friday night and the depression of losing.”
Trailing by four with 3:26 remaining, Vujacic beat the shot clock buzzer with a 17-footer for the Lakers before Bryant was blocked by Okafor and missed a 3-pointer on the same possession.
“He has to shoot better than that if he’s going to take that many shots,” Jackson said.
Keith Bogans scored and Knight made two free throws that kept Charlotte ahead 96-90. The Lakers made one final push, with Bryant passing to Brian Cook for a jumper, then Cook hitting a 3-pointer to draw the Lakers within one.
Bogans made a layup for a 98-95 lead, then Bryant missed a 3-pointer.
Bryant got fouled and made both free throws, cutting the Lakers’ deficit to one with 17 seconds left. He fouled Knight, who missed both with 11 seconds left.
“It’s tough, especially when you’ve got two free throws to make it a three-point game,” Knight said. “It’s hard to swallow, but there’s not much you can do about it now.”
After a timeout, Bryant drove the basket and got fouled, setting up the winning free throws.
“The science behind that is last year I beat them with one pull-up jumper,” he said, smiling.
The Bobcats extended their lead to 10 points early in the fourth quarter, with former Lakers player Jumaine Jones making consecutive baskets.
“If you’ve watched our games, things go bad for us real quick,” Ely said. “We’d be more comfortable if it was 20 or 25. But we went out there trying to play hard, and our coaches make sure to remind us that any lead can disappear, just like the one we had.”
The Lakers forged a tie at 86 with a 14-5 spurt, including two 3-pointers and a pair of free throws by Vujacic and back-to-back jumpers by Bryant.
Then Ely scored inside over Mihm, Knight hit a running jumper, and Ely slammed down an alley-oop pass from Okafor to put the Bobcats back in front 92-88 with 4:10 remaining.
“This is one we were finally able to win, but I’m not pleased with the way we played,” Jackson said. “We had a difficult time guarding Ely in the post and gave up second shots and opportunities they took advantage of.”
The Lakers opened the third quarter on an 11-2 run engineered mostly by Bryant, Odom and Mihm that resulted in a 57-50 lead. But the Bobcats answered with eight straight points and went up by one. From there, the teams traded baskets, with neither leading by more than four points, before the Bobcats ended the quarter up 73-69.
Shaquille O’Neal, in town for Miami’s game against the Clippers on Monday night, got a standing ovation when he took his courtside seat late in the second quarter. He left at halftime. “I didn’t see him, but I heard the noise and wondered what was going on,” Jackson said. “It was great he came by.” … Bryant admitted he saw O’Neal, but said the big man’s presence had “zero” effect on the Lakers. … It was Jackson’s first regular-season game against the Bobcats, swept 2-0 by the Lakers last season. … Lakers reserve F Brian Cook scored 11 points on his 25th birthday. … Bobcats G Kareem Rush didn’t play against his old team because of a sprained left index finger.